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Treating depression may curb drug abuse in teens

Although treating adolescents for depression may prevent future drug abuse, it has no effect on future alcohol-related disorders, a Duke study found.

The researchers followed up on a previous study on youth depression, looking at 192 of the prior participants, aged 17 to 23. None of the participants had preexisting problems with alcohol or drug abuse, but those who were successfully treated for depression were less likely to develop drug abuse problems. The treatment was unrelated to later alcohol abuse, however.

Adolescents may abuse drugs to cope with negative emotions through self-medication, co-author Paul Rohde, a senior research scientist at Oregon Research Institute, wrote in an email Monday.

“By treating their depression, our participants who responded well to treatment may have had less of a need to turn to illegal substances,” Rohde said.

The adolescents randomly received the depression medication Prozac, cognitive behavior therapy, both treatments or a placebo. In the original study, the combination of Prozac and cognitive behavior therapy were the most effective in treating depression.

Lead author John Curry, professor of psychology and neuroscience, noted, however, that all treatments were equally effective in reducing substance abuse. As long as the depression improved, substance abuse generally decreased among the participants.

Teens most often abused marijuana, Rohde said, since it is the most frequently used drug in the general population. Although alcohol is more frequently abused than marijuana, it was not considered a drug in the study.

“Alcohol is very easily obtained—often from the home—and there is much less stigma to alcohol use and abuse compared to illegal drugs,” he said.

The study did not find a correlation between depression treatment and alcohol abuse in the college-age subjects, however, in part because that is the time of life when alcohol use disorders are most common, Curry said.

Although the paper looked at preventing drug and alcohol abuse disorders, Rohde noted that studying the impact of depression treatment in preventing substance use before it becomes problematic is an important area for future study.

“Almost half of [the adolescents studied] had a second episode of depression,” Curry said. “If [they] have had depression during adolescence, it’s really important for them not to get into an alcohol problem because that raises the risk that they’ll have another depression.”

Rohde added that it would be vital to understand if preventing depression rather than treating it will also prevent future substance abuse problems in adolescents.

Depression has a strong correlation with drug and alcohol disorders and other psychological problems, Rohde said, adding that most adolescents who seek treatment have more than one problem.

“It is very important to continue to look at the ways in which treatment for one problem—depression in our study—has a positive impact on other problems, [like] substance abuse disorders,” Rohde said.

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