“…I think that probably few appreciate the magnitude of the relationship between substance abuse and suicide.”
~Dr. Richard McKeon, PhD, MPH, Public Health Advisor for Suicide Prevention at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s Center for Mental Health Services
Substance abuse and mental illness are closely intertwined. Each condition can be instrumental in the development and the worsening of the other. One of the biggest dangers of SUDs such as alcoholism or an addiction to illicit or prescription drugs is an increased risk of suicide.
Alarming Facts about Suicide in the United States
According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, more than 39,000 people take their own lives in the United States every year – 108 every day. This makes suicide the 10th-leading cause of death in this country, as determined by the Centers for Disease Control.
It is estimated that 90% of people who commit suicide suffer from at least one mental health condition such as:
- Schizophrenia – 1 in 20 schizophrenics will take their own life.
- Bipolar disorder – People with this condition are 20 times more likely to kill themselves than the rest of the general population. More than a third will attempt suicide at least once.
- Borderline personality disorder –Over half of sufferers will make at least one suicide attempt.
- Anorexia nervosa – Approximately 20% will try to take their own lives.
How Suicide and Substance Abuse are Linked
Substance abuse, mental disorders, and risk of suicide are all inextricably intertwined. Mental illness is the leading cause of suicide, but substance abuse is the SECOND-leading cause.
To complicate matters even further, a person with a mental illness is twice as likely to abuse alcohol or drugs, and the risk of mental illness is roughly doubled in substance abusers.
According to Substance Abuse Disorders and Suicide, a report prepared by Dr. Jennifer Olsen-Madden, PhD, of the University of Denver School of Medicine Psychiatry Department:
- Substance abusers have a suicide risk that is 6.2 times higher than average.
- In emergency room visits, more than 132,500 were suicide attempts related to alcohol or drugs.
- Of those, 85% were serious enough to require medical admission.
- Approximately 15,000 were drug-related attempts by youths.
- Of those 15,000, half involved opioid painkillers.
- Between 40% and 60% of successful suicides are intoxicated when they kill themselves.
- Up to two-thirds of suicides are committed by individuals who have at least some alcohol in their system.
- Between 25% and 30% of completed suicides are by people who have been diagnosed with alcohol dependence or an Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD).
- As many as 1 in 7 people who are alcohol-dependent complete suicide.
- According to research published in 1989, alcohol abuse is the strongest predictor of suicide. The risk of an alcoholic eventually committing suicide is more than five times greater than that of non-alcoholics.
- In autopsy studies conducted on alcohol-dependent suicides, 89% demonstrated a history of psychiatric illness.
- Research has shown that alcoholics who attempt suicide are more likely to be depressed than attempters who are not alcoholic.
- Moreover, individuals with AUDs are more likely to have suicide attempts that are “medically serious”.
- Middle-aged or older alcoholics are at a greater risk for suicide than younger abusers of alcohol.
- The third-leading method of completed suicide is poisoning, and drugs make up three-quarters of all completed poisoning suicides.
What Are Some of the Reasons Why Substance Abusers Might Be at Higher Risk for Suicide?
There are several theories why substance abusers are more likely to attempt, or complete suicide than the general population:
- Substance abusers are more likely to have a co-occurring mental disorder.
- Alcoholics and addicts are more likely to experience traumatic life events that can contribute to the risk of suicide – financial difficulties, health concerns, legal entanglements, relationship problems, sexual abuse, violence, etc.
- People who abuse alcohol or drugs may have impaired problem-solving skills.
- Substance abuse can result in poor impulse control.
- Many people struggling with an active addiction can be socially isolated, with no prominent support system.
- There may also be a genetic component – alcoholics who have a personal history of suicide attempts also frequently have a heightened family history of suicide attempts among their first-degree relatives.
- Alcohol or drug intoxication can both decrease a person’s inhibition and increase their aggressiveness, while at the same time impairing their judgment.
- The consumption of alcohol can interact with certain medications, increasing their lethality. This can make even a half-hearted attempt at suicide by overdose much more likely to be fatal.
What Can Be Done to Lessen the Risk of Substance-Abuse-Related Suicide?
For the family and friends of substance abusers, two things have to be done to reduce the risk of suicide.
FIRST, the substance abuser should be convinced to seek and accept professional addiction help as soon as possible. Addiction is an incurable, progressive disease that only worsens over time. In fact, addiction has been called “a type of chronic suicide”. Do whatever it takes to compel your loved one into treatment. Hire a licensed interventionist, if necessary.
SECOND, pay close attention to the actions and statements of your addicted loved one. Any suicidal thoughts, statements, or behaviors should be considered a psychiatric emergency, and the involvement of a properly-trained mental health professional is crucial. This may even mean taking your addict/alcoholic to the emergency room are even calling 911.
For substance abuse treatment professionals, suicide can best be prevented by improved screening and treatment for mental disorders that might co-occur side-by-side with substance abuse. Early detection and timely intervention can literally be the difference between life or death.
NorthPoint Recovery specializes in the treatment of co-occurring substance abuse and mental health disorders. In a closely-monitored, safe, therapeutic environment, alcoholics and addicts can regain their sobriety, sanity, and serenity by learning new, healthier life skills.
NorthPoint offers recovery services that are evidence-based, wellness-focused, and overseen by the best staff-to-patient ratio of professionals in the region. If you have a loved one who needs treatment for their addiction to drugs or alcohol, make the call today to get the help and hope you need.
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