Temporal Precedence of Self-Regulation Over Depression and Alcohol Problems: Support for a Model of Self-Regulatory Failure

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Alcohol use is highly comorbid with depression, especially among college students, whose rates of both phenomena are higher than in the general population. The self-medication hypothesis (i.e., alcohol use is negatively reinforced via the alleviation of negative affect) has dominated explanatory models of comorbidity. However, self-regulation has also demonstrated cross-sectional relationships with both depression and alcohol problems and may contribute to the development of alternative comorbidity models. Self-regulation introduces three alternative models that can be tested empirically: (a) a depressed regulation model, (b) a central nervous system depressant model, and (c) a self-regulatory failure model. The purpose of this study was to test the utility of these models (in addition to the self-medication hypothesis) by examining the temporal precedence in the relations between self-regulation, depressive symptoms, and alcohol problems among heavy-drinking college students (N = 393) over 5 assessment points (baseline, 1 month, 6 months, 12 months, and 16 months) using an autoregressive cross-lagged model. Lower self-regulation, and higher alcohol problems and depressive symptoms, prospectively predicted higher depressive symptoms. Higher alcohol problems and lower self-regulation prospectively predicted higher alcohol problems. Only self-regulation prospectively predicted self-regulation. These results were consistent across multiple time points. Findings are consistent with a self-regulatory failure model of depressive symptoms and alcohol problems. Therefore, self-regulation may be an important etiological variable and potential intervention target to reduce both alcohol problems and depressive symptoms among college students.

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