Drinking To Cope With Depressed Mood In College And Non-College Young Adults

Co-occurring depressed mood and risky alcohol use are prevalent during emerging adulthood, a critical development period ranging from approximately 18 to 25 years of age linking adolescence and adulthood and characterized by identity exploration, instability, self-focus, and opportunity (Arnett, 2005).

Three-quarters of individuals with a lifetime history of mood disorders have their first onset by the age of 24 (Kessler et al., 2005), and emerging adulthood is associated with peak lifetime drinking risk (Patrick & Schulenberg, 2011; Sussman & Arnett, 2014). Depressed mood and risky drinking tend to co-occur. Depressed individuals are susceptible to consuming alcohol to avoid or regulate negative internal states (Abrams & Niaura, 1987; Maisto, Carey, & Bradizza, 1999)even though drinking to cope fails to effectively resolve problems and may contribute to chronic drinking problems over time (Baer, 2002; Littlefield, Sher, & Wood, 2010; Merrill & Read, 2010).

Although drinking to cope has emerged as a strong mediator in the relationship linking depressive symptoms with subsequent negative alcohol consequences among college students (Bravo, Pearson, Stevens, & Henson, 2016; Clerkin, Werntz, Magee, Lindgren, & Teachman, 2014; Gonzalez, Bradizza, & Collins, 2009; Kenney, Jones, & Barnett, 2015; Tomaka, Morales-Monks, & Shamaley, 2013; Vernig & Orsillo, 2015), research to date has largely neglected non-college emerging adults. Nationally, one in five eighth graders drop out of high school (Heckman & Lafontaine, 2010), and among high school graduates, less than half matriculate into 4-year colleges the following fall (Aud et al., 2011).

In the current study, we aimed to fill a prominent gap in the existing literature by examining if the pathways linking depressive symptoms with alcohol outcomes were similar when comparing 341 current college (65%) and non-college (35%) community-recruited emerging adult drinkers (mean age = 21; 51% male; 68% White). The results showed that college and non-college emerging adults reported similar levels of drinking, alcohol problems, and drinking to cope with negative affect, and drinking to cope was associated with alcohol-related problems in both samples. Moreover, consistent with the hypothesis and prior research (e.g., Kenney et al., 2015; Vernig & Orsillo, 2015), the relationship between depression and alcohol problems was mostly or fully mediated by the use of alcohol for coping among college students. However, drinking to cope did not mediate the pathway among non-college emerging adults.

It is possible that different situational contexts may uniquely impact individuals’ use of alcohol to alleviate negative mood states specifically. Drinking to cope in order to enhance mood may be particularly appealing for college students with fewer adult roles and ample opportunity to drink in a heavy drinking normative culture. Accessibility and availability of alcohol may make decisions to drink easier for depressed students. Given that students who drink to alleviate depressive symptoms face a heightened risk for alcohol-related negative consequences even though they do not necessarily drink at greater levels than non-depressed peers may indicate deficits in emotional regulation or volitional control. Protective behavioral skills training targeted at emerging adults who rely on drinking to cope may be helpful.

Still, drinking to cope was directly associated with alcohol-related problems among non-college participants. This finding highlights the need to examine predictors other than depressed mood in this population. Given that emerging adults without college degrees are more likely to have a history of adverse experiences than those with college degrees (Monnat & Chandler, 2015), examining the role of adverse experiences in non-college emerging adults’ alcohol-related motivational pathways may be needed.

In sum, the current findings caution against extending college-based findings to non-college populations and underscore the need to better understand the role of coping motives and other intervening factors in pathways linking depressed mood and alcohol-related risk in non-college emerging adults.

These findings are described in the article entitled Drinking to cope mediates the relationship between depression and alcohol risk: Different pathways for college and non-college young adults, recently published in the journal Addictive Behaviors. This work was conducted by Shannon R. Kenney, Bradley J. Anderson, and Michael D. Stein from Butler Hospital. 


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