– Drinking to alleviate mood or anxiety symptoms is responsible for 12%-16% of cases of new-onset alcohol use disorder in affected individuals, Jitender Sareen, MD, said at the annual conference of the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.

Similarly, the use of prescription or nonprescription drugs to self-medicate mood or anxiety symptoms accounts for 20% of new-onset drug use disorders in this population, added Dr. Sareen, professor and head of the department of psychiatry at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg.

Dr. Jitender Sareen of the University of Manitoba, Winnipeg Bruce Jancin/Frontline Medical News

Dr. Jitender Sareen

He was a coauthor of two landmark longitudinal epidemiologic studies that support the concept of self-medication as a direct causal mechanism that explains a phenomenon often observed in clinical practice: namely, the high rate of comorbid mood or anxiety disorders accompanied by an alcohol or substance use disorder.

“The clinical implication is that questions about self-medication with alcohol or drugs should be included in the assessment of patients with anxiety and mood symptoms, because self-medication is a marker of higher likelihood of psychopathology. And psychologic therapies like cognitive-behavioral therapy and dialectical behavior therapy could prevent onset of substance use disorders by teaching patients emotion regulation skills to manage their mood and anxiety symptoms without self-medication,” Dr. Sareen said.

The first longitudinal study of the role of self-medication in the development of comorbid anxiety and substance use disorders included 34,653 nationally representative adults who completed both the initial face-to-face National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions in 2001-2002 and a follow-up survey conducted 3 years later.

During the 3-year follow-up period, 9.7% of subjects developed a new-onset anxiety disorder, 5.9% of participants newly met DSM-IV diagnostic criteria for alcohol use disorder, and 2% developed a new-onset drug use disorder.

Among subjects who met the criteria for an anxiety disorder at baseline and at that time also reported self-medication with alcohol, 12.6% developed an incident alcohol use disorder during follow-up. Among those who self-medicated with drugs, 10.4% developed a drug use disorder.

In contrast, only 4.7% of subjects with a baseline anxiety disorder who did not self-medicate with alcohol at baseline developed an incident alcohol use disorder. And an incident drug use disorder occurred in 1.7% of patients with a baseline anxiety disorder who did not self-medicate with drugs.

Among patients with a baseline alcohol or other substance use disorder, self-medication with alcohol was associated with an adjusted 2.13-fold increased likelihood of developing social phobia during 3 years of follow-up, while self-medication with other drugs was independently associated with a 3.27-fold increased likelihood of subsequently developing social phobia.

In a multivariate logistic regression analysis, Dr. Sareen and his coinvestigators determined that self-medication with alcohol by patients with an anxiety disorder at baseline was associated with a 2.63-fold increased risk of incident alcohol use disorder during follow-up. Self-medication with drugs in patients with a baseline anxiety disorder was associated with a 4.99-fold risk of a new-onset substance use disorder during the 3 years of follow-up (Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2011;68[8]:800-7).

In a subsequent analysis of the same prospectively studied population, Dr. Sareen and his colleagues focused specifically on drinking to self-medicate mood symptoms. They found that self-medication with alcohol was associated with an adjusted 3.1-fold increased likelihood of new-onset alcohol dependence during the 3-year follow-up, as well as with a 3.45-fold increased risk of persistence of alcohol dependence. Roughly 12% of all cases of incident alcohol dependence arising during follow-up of patients with baseline mood symptoms were attributed to self-medication with alcohol. The increased risk of new-onset alcohol dependence was observed not only in subjects who met DSM-IV criteria for an affective disorder, but in those with subthreshold mood symptoms as well (JAMA Psychiatry. 2013 Jul;70[7]:718-26).

Again, this points to drinking as a behavior employed to self-medicate mood symptoms as a potential target for preventive interventions aimed at reducing the occurrence of alcohol dependence. As yet, however, no formal studies have been done to confirm the effectiveness of this strategy, the psychiatrist continued.

Dr. Sareen was not involved in the third iteration of the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions, in which a different group of 36,309 nationally representative adults was interviewed during 2011-2013 to assess the impact of the DSM-5 criteria for alcohol use disorder. Using DSM-5, 13.9% of the population met criteria for an alcohol use disorder during the past 12 months, and the lifetime prevalence of alcohol use disorder was 29.1%. Fewer than one in five subjects with a lifetime DSM-5 alcohol use disorder had ever been treated.

In the first national survey, which used DSM-IV criteria, the 12-month and lifetime prevalences of alcohol abuse and/or dependence were 8.5% and 30.3%, respectively.

DSM-5 alcohol use disorder was highly comorbid. Both lifetime and 12-month alcohol use disorder were associated with significantly increased likelihood of other substance use disorders, major depression, bipolar I disorder, borderline personality disorder, and antisocial personality disorder.

These data indicate “an urgent need to educate the public and policy makers about alcohol use disorder and its treatment alternatives, to destigmatize the disorder, and to encourage those who cannot reduce their alcohol consumption on their own, despite substantial harm to themselves and others, to seek treatment,” the investigators wrote (JAMA Psychiatry. 2015 Aug;72[8]:757-66).

The surveys were supported by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Dr. Sareen reported having no financial conflicts of interest.