Socioeconomic status, depressive symptoms, and adolescent substance use

Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 2002 May;156(5):448-53. doi: 10.1001/archpedi.156.5.448.


Objective: To determine the relationships among socioeconomic status (SES), depression, and substance use among teenagers. We hypothesized that, among teenagers, substance use was associated with SES in a graded fashion and that depression is a mechanism through which SES affects substance use behaviors.

Design: Linear regression analyses of cross-sectional data from Wave I of the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (1995).

Participants: Fifteen thousand one hundred twelve adolescents whose parents answered questions assessing household income and parental education.

Main outcome measures: Use of cigarettes, alcohol, marijuana, and cocaine.

Results: For all 4 substances, frequency of use varied by SES. In the total population, inverse SES gradients were present for cigarette use (education, mean change= -0.052; 95% confidence interval [CI], -0.081 to -0.023; income, mean change= -0.038; 95% CI, -0.069 to -0.007) and alcohol use (income, mean change= 0.044; 95% CI, 0.016-0.071). The relationship between marijuana use and education was also significant but inverse-U-shaped, not linear. This relationship was only present among nonwhite teenagers. Race/ethnicity also moderated the relationships between SES and cigarette use and SES and cocaine use. For cigarette use, stratification by race/ethnicity revealed an inverse graded relationship among white non-Hispanic teenagers and a direct, graded relationship among nonwhite teenagers (ie, mean change for education among white non-Hispanic teenagers, -0.012; 95% CI, -0.016 to -0.075; mean change for education among nonwhite teenagers, 0.040; 95% CI, 0.014-0.072). For cocaine use, a weak, inverse linear relationship existed only between education and cocaine use among white non-Hispanic teenagers (mean change for education, -0.013; 95% CI, -0.026 to -0.0004). The relationship between the SES indicator and substance use weakened when depressive symptoms were entered into the model for the SES-cigarette use relationship (23% decrease in mean change associated with a 1-unit change in both education and income) and for the association between education and cocaine use among white non-Hispanic teenagers (31% decrease).

Conclusions: Socioeconomic status is associated with substance use among teenagers but the nature of the relationship is not consistent across SES indicators or across race/ethnicity groups. Depressive symptoms are a mechanism through which SES affects cigarette and cocaine use behaviors among teenagers. However, these data indicate that interventions targeted toward decreasing depressive symptoms will not have a strong impact on the effects of SES on teenage substance use.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adolescent Behavior*
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Depression / epidemiology
  • Depression / etiology*
  • Educational Status
  • Family
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Income
  • Linear Models
  • Longitudinal Studies
  • Male
  • Social Class*
  • Substance-Related Disorders / epidemiology
  • Substance-Related Disorders / etiology*