Research highlights the role of shame in the link between depression and addiction

A new study provides evidence that feelings of shame act as a pathway between depression and addiction in young adults.

In a paper published online in the journal Addictive Behaviors, scientists sought to better understand the associations between depression, shame and addiction using a sample of 210 college students.

“Emerging adulthood is a particularly risky time in development, coinciding with the onset of mood and substance use disorders/addiction,” said study author Elena Bilevicius of the University of Manitoba.

“Considering the high comorbidity rates between these conditions, we thought it was important to better understand the depressive-risk pathway to addiction. Previous work has linked shame to both depression and addiction, so we thought it was appropriate to examine shame as a potential mediator in this risk pathway.”

The researchers measured levels of depressive symptoms, shame, alcohol misuse, and gambling problems over the span of one month. They found that higher levels of depression were associated with increased alcohol and gambling problems — and this relationship was mediated by shame.

“In other words, individuals with higher depressive symptoms at baseline were more likely to experience shame, which in turn was associated with greater alcohol and gambling problems at follow-up,” Bilevicius explained to PsyPost.

“This is important because it highlights the relevance of shame in the pathway to addiction. If we can better understand that variables contribute to the development of addiction, we can be more equipped to target these variables in treatment.”

The study employed a longitudinal design, but — like all research — has some limitations.

“It is important to note that we were unable to establish directionality or causality in our study, meaning we do not know whether higher depressive symptoms caused feelings of shame, and whether feelings of shame caused addiction,” Bilevicius said.

“Similarly, it is possible that shame came before depression, rather than after as modelled in our study. For these reasons, it is important to establish temporal precedence to gain the most complete understanding of the relationship between depression, shame, and addiction.”

The study, “Shame mediates the relationship between depression and addictive behaviours“, was authored by Elena Bilevicius, Alanna Single, Lindsay A. Bristow, Melody Foot, Michael Ellery, Matthew T. Keough, and Edward A. Johnson.