Can Postpartum Depression Lead to Addiction?

Can Postpartum Depression Lead to Addiction?

After giving birth, many women experience postpartum depression, which can lead to substance abuse if left untreated

The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) describes postpartum depression as a mood disorder women may develop after childbirth. Symptoms can include anxiety, exhaustion, hopelessness, extreme sadness, worry, sleep issues, concentration problems, unexplained crying and even physical aches and pains. No single cause accounts for the disorder, as it traditionally stems from a combination of the following emotional, physical and environmental factors:

  • A rapid drop in hormones like estrogen and progesterone after giving birth
  • A lack of proper rest and sleep needed to recover from the birthing process
  • Stressful life events that occur during the pregnancy or shortly after childbirth
  • Medical complications such as premature delivery or health issues with the baby
  • Family or personal history of depression, especially during or after a prior pregnancy
  • Mixed feelings about the pregnancy and a poor emotional support network

The NIMH suggests that up to 80% of mothers experience the baby blues, a colloquial term used to describe feelings of worry, fatigue and unhappiness that occur during the first week or two after childbirth. On the other hand, postpartum depression is extreme sadness and anxiety that interferes with a mother’s basic functioning and mood levels. It occurs after nearly 15% of births, and symptoms typically start a week to a month after the delivery. If left untreated, this condition can last for years and lead to problems with sleeping, eating and substance abuse.

Depression and Addiction

A study published by the Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment in 2006 states that mood disorders are the most common co-occurring disorders among substance abusers. Per the findings, 40% to 42% of drug addicts also suffer from a mood disorder, a category that includes all forms of depression. In terms of the connection between addiction and depression, the American Journal of Psychiatry (AJP) published a study on co-occurring substance use and mental health disorders in 2005, and it makes the following key observations:

  • An overarching addiction theory suggests that drug abuse is an attempt to cope with emotional distress
  • Mental health disorders are essentially chronic states of distress associated with changes in neural stress circuits
  • Addiction involves adaptation in the brain’s reward and stress circuitry that ultimately increases emotional distress
  • One of the key stress-related hormones is associated with both mood disorders and addiction
  • Chronic distress bridges addiction and depression, which are both affected by genetic and environmental factors

When looking specifically at depression, the AJP study suggests that co-occurring nicotine, alcohol and illicit drug use ranges from 32% to 54% in depressed individuals; furthermore, each disorder individually increases the risk for the other. Likewise, neuroimaging studies found that poor regulation in the brain’s stress and reward pathways is common in both disorders. In simple terms, postpartum depression and addiction typically involve similar genetic vulnerabilities and elevated stress (such as the stress that occurs with having a newborn), and both issues can trigger depressive symptoms and motivate substance abuse.

Substance Abuse and Women

Citing a 2014 gender study on substance abuse, the Scientific American notes that women are twice as likely to abuse prescription medication than men. During the stress that follows childbirth, many women might turn to prescription depressants like Valium or Xanax to self-medicate anxiety or a stimulant like Ritalin or Adderall to boost their mood; they might even consider such drug abuse to be safe since these drugs have medical intent. If the mood issue stems in part from genetic predisposition, then the woman abusing drugs in these ways is more vulnerable to addiction, and a substance abuse problem can form despite the positive intentions.

If an addiction forms, it is essential to get help for both the depression and the substance abuse. Just as each disorder increases the risk for the other, they also increase the risk of relapse if either is left untreated. Fortunately, rehab centers can provide integrated care that treats multiple disorders at the same time. For a mother with a newborn, getting treatment might sound like an impossible task to add to a mounting set of responsibilities, but professional care is important for the following reasons:

  • Substance abuse increases the risk of physical and emotional harm to the baby
  • Both disorders typically continue to become more debilitating until properly treated
  • Recovery helps women become better mothers and caregivers
  • Handling the disorders properly helps prepare the mother for the potential struggles of a child with similar genetic vulnerabilities

Many women say childcare responsibilities prevent them from getting care, but the potential damage from untreated disorders can be severe. For this reason, many recovery programs assist mothers (both married and single) with support programs and treatment plans they can embrace.

Postpartum Depression and Addiction Helpline

Our admissions coordinators can take your call right now to answer questions and provide the information you need to address postpartum depression and drug abuse. Our staff can even check your health insurance policy for treatment benefits. They are available 24 hours a day, so please call our toll-free helpline now.

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