The Link Between Depression and Alcohol Use in Teens

Group of teenagers drinking beer in a park

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According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), alcohol is the most commonly used and abused drug among youth in the United States. And just how commonly used is it? 

Prevalence of Alcohol Use Among Teens

The 2019 Youth Risk Behavior Survey found that, among high school students, 29 percent drank some amount of alcohol, 14 percent binge drank, 5 percent drove after drinking alcohol, and 17 percent rode with a driver who had been drinking alcohol.

Also in 2019, the National Survey on Drug Use and Health reported that 19 percent of youth aged 12 to 20 years drank alcohol and 11 percent reported binge drinking. And the Monitoring the Future Survey reported that 10 percent of 8th graders and 34 percent of 12th graders had tried alcohol.

Teen Drinking Might Be a Symptom of an Underlying Depression

Because alcohol is easy to obtain and socially acceptable, it is a very popular means of self-medication for depression. Despite the fact that it is illegal for young teens to purchase alcohol, they are often able to get it through their parents' liquor cabinets, unscrupulous store clerks, or older friends who purchase it for them.

Former Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) administrator Nelba Chavez, PhD, says "Parents need to know that alcohol use can also be a warning sign or a cry for help that something is seriously wrong in a child's life."

Other Reasons Why Teens Drink

People use alcohol for numerous reasons. Peer pressure, celebration, anxiety, sadness, boredom, rebellion, and insomnia are just a few of the reasons your teen may be picking up that can of beer. 

It could also be argued that drinking to cope with depression has almost become a badge of honor in our society, a visible sign to the world that one is, indeed, hurting.

Warning Signs

Try to keep an eye out for the smell of alcohol on your teen's breath, slurred speech, and problems with coordination. These are all tell-tale signs of alcohol use. Drinkers tend to be more prone to unintentional injuries such as falls, car accidents, falls, drowning, and burns. Falling grades, skipping school, and behavioral problems are also more common in teen drinkers. You may also notice sudden changes in the friends your child is spending time with.

If you or a loved one are struggling with substance use or addiction, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

How You Can Help Your Teen

Parental involvement is one of the keys to preventing teens from drinking. Take steps to educate your teen about the dangers of drinking and conduct ongoing conversations about alcohol.

In addition, you should maintain a strong relationship with your teen, keep track of your teen's activities, teach your teen social skills, establish clear rules and consequences, and be a good role model.

And if you suspect your teen's drinking is a sign of depression, seek out the help of mental health professional.

4 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Underage drinking.

  2. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). Results from the 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Detailed Tables.

  3. Johnston, L. D., Miech, R. A., O’Malley, P. M., Bachman, J. G., Schulenberg, J. E., & Patrick, M. E. (2021). Monitoring the Future national survey results on drug use 1975-2020: Overview, key findings on adolescent drug use. Ann Arbor: Institute for Social Research, University of Michigan.

  4. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Underage drinking.

By Nancy Schimelpfening
Nancy Schimelpfening, MS is the administrator for the non-profit depression support group Depression Sanctuary. Nancy has a lifetime of experience with depression, experiencing firsthand how devastating this illness can be.