Research led by Jens Christoffer Skogen of the University of Bergen in Norway found that abstainers are at significantly higher risk for depression and anxiety disorders, compared with those who consume moderate amounts of alcohol regularly.
The study utilised data from the Nord-Trøndelag Health Study (HUNT Study) based in Norway. This provided information on the drinking habits and mental health of over 38,000 individuals. The study authors found that those individuals who reported drinking no alcohol over a two-week period were more likely than moderate drinkers to report symptoms of depression. People in the top fifth percentile of drinkers had the highest odds for anxiety. But it was abstainers who were at the highest risk for depression.
Abstainers in the study sample were more likely to have illnesses such as osteoarthritis and fibromyalgia, and people with chronic illnesses are more prone to depression. Also, “some people assume it’s healthier not to drink,” says Skogen - which may be particularly true of those who have chronic illnesses. Finally, some abstainers were formerly heavy drinkers - alcoholics who had to stopped drinking. It makes sense that they would have more psychological distress than others, but only 14% of the abstainers in the Norway study fitted these categories.
The authors conclude that in societies where some use of alcohol is the norm, abstinence may be associated with being socially marginalised or particular personality traits that may also be associated with mental illness.
Source: Skogen J. C., Harvey S. B., Henderson M., Stordal E., Mykletun A. Anxiety and depression among abstainers and low-level alcohol consumers. Addiction 2009; 104: 1519-1529