Alcohol Use and Depression among African-American and Caucasian Adolescents

By Maag, John W.; Irvin, Deborah M. | Adolescence, Spring 2005 | Go to article overview

Alcohol Use and Depression among African-American and Caucasian Adolescents


Maag, John W., Irvin, Deborah M., Adolescence


Adolescence is a time of enormous physical, emotional, social, and psychological transition. Adolescents face a series of important decisions involving family and peer relationships, sexual expression, vocational/educational development, and experimenting with drugs and alcohol. Perhaps as a consequence of these developmental transitions, the number of stressful life events is arguably at its maximum during adolescence (e.g., Merikangas & Angst, 1995). Attaining a stable sense of self requires adolescents to successfully navigate these transitions. This task--depending on one's personality structure and dynamics--is more difficult for some adolescents whose ability to cope with stress, anxiety, and interpersonal relationships is compromised (Khantzian, 1985). As a result, they are at greater risk for developing a variety of mental health problems--two of the most common being alcohol abuse and depression.

There has been much research throughout the past two decades indicating that alcohol is the most commonly used psychoactive substance among both male and female adolescents and across ethnic groups (e.g., Grunbaum et al., 2002; Johnston, O'Malley, & Bachman, 1998; Windel & Davies, 1999). A National Institute on Drug Abuse report indicated that 80% of high school seniors had consumed alcohol (Johnston, O'Malley, & Bachman, 2001). Older adolescents consistently have reported higher levels of alcohol use than their younger peers (Galaif & Newcomb, 1999; Grunbaum et al., 2002; Parker, Calhoun, & Weaver, 2000).

Depression is the most common mental health problem among adolescents. In one of the most comprehensive studies conducted in high school settings, Lewinsohn, Rohde, Seeley, and Hops (1991) found that about 25% of adolescents reported severe depressive symptomatology. In general, older adolescents have obtained higher depression scores than their younger peers (Grunbaum et al., 2002; Roberts, Roberts, & Chen, 1997; Schraedley, Gotlib, & Hayward, 1999). A more complex pattern of depression emerges between males and females. For example, Smucker, Craighead, Craighead, and Green (1986) found that acting-out behaviors were more highly correlated with overall depression scores for adolescent males than for adolescent females. These gender differences were not observed in children (grades 3-6). They also found that a generally dysphoric mood and a negative view of self correlated more highly with total depression scores for both preadolescent and adolescent females (grades 3-9) than for same-aged males. Teri (1982) found that adolescent females experienced higher levels of depression than did males. McGee, Feehan, Williams, and Anderson (1992) found that boys had higher rates of depression than girls up to age 12 years; after that age, adolescent females had higher rates.

Given the extent of adolescent alcohol abuse and depression, it should come as no surprise that several researchers have found positive relations between both variables (e.g., Borges, Walters, & Kessler, 2000; Brent, 1995; Henry, Feehan, McGee, Stanton, Moffitt, & Silva, 1993). In general, symptoms of depression predate alcohol abuse (Costello, Erkanli, Feerman, & Angold, 1999; Kessler et al., 1996). For example, Fergusson and Woodward (2002) found that adolescents who were depressed were significantly more likely to abuse alcohol than were their nondepressed peers. Kandel, Johnson, Bird, and Camino (1997) suggested that depression is one of the major risk factors for adolescents using licit and illicit substances. A popular explanation for these findings is that adolescents who are depressed begin consuming alcohol as a way to self-medicate (Khantzian, 1985). Other researchers have suggested that the earlier misuse of alcohol begins, the greater the likelihood that psychiatric problems, such as depression, will occur. For example, Buydens-Branchey, Branchey, and Noumair (1989) reported that adults who had started abusing alcohol in their teens were three times as likely to be depressed as their non-abusing peers. …

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