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The Death of Avicii: What it Teaches Us about Substance Abuse, Depression, and Suicide

The Death of Avicii: What it Teaches Us about Substance Abuse, Depression, and Suicide

On April 20, 2018, Avicii – the internationally-famous DJ who was among the most successful in the world – took his own life while working in Muscat, Oman. Reportedly, he used broken glass from a wine bottle to cut himself, self-inflicting the wounds that killed him. He was only 28 years old. If the reports are true, this makes the circumstances of his suicide tragically apropos. For years, Avicii had struggled mightily with excessive problematic drinking. In fact, he suffered from a number of alcohol-related health problems that may have contributed to his desperate state of mind. Now, let’s take a closer look at the too-short life and untimely death of a superstar performer.

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First Things First – Who Was Avicii?

He helped our culture make an impact on the mainstream that will never be forgotten.” ~ Pasquale Rotella, founder of Electric Daisy Carnval Born Tim Bergling in Stockholm, Sweden, the man who would become Avicii started making music when he was just 16. He soon became an extremely prolific remixer and music producer, as well as a sought-after DJ. Bergling chose “Avicii” as his stage moniker – the lowest level of Buddhist hell, from which some believe there is no hope of rebirth. Avicii enjoyed tremendous professional success – his songs topped the international banks charts, he was nominated for a Grammy award, and commanded $250,000 DJ fees. Madonna hand-picked him as a collaborator. He is often credited as one of the DJs who helped popularize electronic dance music with American Top 40 listeners.

Avicii’s History of Alcohol Abuse

“You are traveling around, you live in a suitcase, you get to this place, there is free alcohol everywhere – it’s sort of weird if you don’t drink…I just got into a habit, because you rely on that encouragement and self-confidence you get from alcohol, and then you get dependent on it.” ~ Avicii But despite these accomplishments – or perhaps because of them – Avicii began using, and then abusing, the alcohol that flowed freely within his party-driven world. It started out as a merely a young person taking full advantage of the perks of their profession. Avicii said, “I didn’t expect it to last.” But it soon became a regular pattern—endless champagne every night, countless Bloody Marys at every airport, and wine during every flight. This habit is important in how alcoholism develops. Alcohol causes changes within the brain’s reward pathways. This is why it feels GOOD to drink—alcohol triggers a surge in the production of dopamine, a pleasure-causing neurotransmitter. But over time and with chronic drinking, the brain stops producing dopamine naturally, and the person loses the ability to feel pleasure or even function normally without the presence of alcohol. Alcohol-dependent people will experience uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms whenever alcohol is unavailable. In other words, they now must drink to keep from feeling BAD. Of special relevance, researchers at the University of California San Francisco have discovered that this reprogramming of the brain’s pleasure centers starts from the very first drink.×399.jpg

Drinking as a Coping Mechanism

It’s very easy to become too attached to partying. You become lonely and get anxieties. It becomes toxic.” ~ Avicii Being one of the top DJs in the world is a grueling, non-stop existence. By his own admission, Avicii  performed up to 300 gigs a year , and the constant touring was wearing him down, both personally and musically. He said that he “wasn’t getting any happiness anymore” and that the “whole thing was about success for the sake of success.” In 2016, he announced that he was stepping away from touring, citing health concerns and a desire to focus more on music as the chief reasons. For all the glitz and glamor, a life always lived on the road can be empty and lonely. Long separations from home, family, and friends can take a tremendous mental toll. In fact, a 2016 study involving more than 2000 musicians revealed that almost 70% self-reported experiencing depression.  Significantly, half say that they face difficulties getting help. Pressure from touring is mentioned as a major factor. Of special relevance, depression and alcoholism are closely-related illnesses. Each condition can be a factor in the development or worsening of the other. Consequently, they often co-occur:

  • Having either condition leads to a DOUBLED likelihood of having the other.
  • Close to two-thirds of all alcoholics also struggle with a depressive disorder.

When this happens, sufferers can be trapped in a seemingly-hopeless downward spiral. For example: A person struggling with depression may turn to alcohol to ease their emotional pain. However, the chronic abuse of alcohol leads to other consequences—anxiety, legal consequences, relationship issues, health problems, etc.—each of which can worsen depression. And even when an alcohol-dependent tries to stop drinking, one of the primary symptoms of alcohol withdraw is…severe depression.

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How Avicii’s Drinking Led to Serious Health Problems

“Yeah, I was drinking way too much, partying in general way too much. Then I got a pancreatitis attack [at 21], which is very rare. So that forced me to do a 180 and stop drinking.” ~ Avicii In Avicii’s case, in addition to the loneliness of the road and the pressure of performing, his drinking twice caused him to be hospitalized with severe health problems:

  • (2012) Acute Pancreatitis
  • (2014) Blocked Gallbladder—required surgery to remove it, along with his appendix

It is established that both of these conditions can be caused—either directly or indirectly— by chronic alcohol abuse. One of the signs of an alcohol addiction is continuing to drink, even in the face of negative consequences. Yet even after alcohol-induced pancreatitis, Avicii tried to “manage” his drinking. In a 2013 interview for GQ, he said, “I probably drink more now than I should. But I have a pace. I never drink two days in a row.” Bargaining with alcohol or trying to set arbitrary limits is another warning sign of a drinking problem. Avicii’s “never two days in a row” rule is no different than the promises made by generations of alcoholics:

  • I’ll stick to beer instead of liquor.”
  • I’ll only drink on the weekends.”
  • I’ll drink at home instead of at a bar.”

But such attempts at moderation management rarely work. In fact, it’s usually nothing more than a type of denial that allows the addiction to continue. The very nature of addiction—a disease of the brain—means that the ability to control one’s drinking has been taken away.

Surgical Pain and Powerful Opioids

It felt like I was constantly in a haze…I was on all these kind of medications. And they were saying ‘oh this is fine, this is not addictive. I was taking all these pills that weren’t meant to be addictive… and they made me feel more anxious…” ~ Avicii Gallbladder surgery left him in severe pain, for which he received Percocet, a powerful opioid painkiller. And even though he was assured that his medication wasn’t addictive, that wasn’t the case at all. Like all opioids, Percocet is severely habit-forming. Avicii himself said, “Perocet is like heroin.” In addition to the pain, Avicii was pressured by his managers to keep touring even if meant taking more pain pills to stay functional. He lamented, “They have seen how ill I have felt by doing it, but I had a lot of push-back when I wanted to stop doing gigs.” “I have said, like, ‘I’m going to die’. I have said it so many times” Experiencing chronic pain has been linked to depression. But just as significantly, a 2013 study by St. Louis University researchers discovered that long-term opioid use ALSO raises the risk of new-onset depression. Compared to patients who took opioids less than 90 days:

  • Patients who were given opioids for 90-180 days had a 25% increased risk of depression.
  • Patients who received opioids for over 180 days were at a 53% increased risk.

Dr. Jeffrey Scherrer, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Family and Community Medicine, said, “These findings suggest that the longer one is exposed to opioid analgesics, the greater is their risk of developing depression. Opioids have long been known to allay pain and suffering, but reports of adverse effects are abundant and continue to emerge.”

The Connection between Depression, Substance Abuse, and Suicide

“He could not go on any longer. He wanted to find peace.” ~ statement from the Bergling Family When all of the contributing factors are considered, Avicii’s suicide highlights the convoluted relationship it shares with alcoholism and depression.

  • Mental illness – such as depression – is the leading cause of suicide.
  • Approximately 9 out of every 10 completed suicides is by a person with a mental illness.
  • But substance abuse – such as alcoholism – is the second-leading cause.
  • People who abuse alcohol or drugs have a suicide risk that is more than six times that of the general population.
  • 6 out of 10 suicide victims are intoxicated at the time.
  • The abuse of alcohol is the most accurate predictor of a suicide attempt.
  • Compared to people who do not abuse alcohol, alcoholics have a quintupled suicide risk.
  • Up to 30% of suicides are committed by alcohol-dependent/addicted people.
  • Two-thirds of all suicide victims have at least some level of alcohol in their system.
  • Almost 90% of suicide victims who are alcohol-dependent/addicted have a previous history of mental illness.

Alcohol is a contributing factor in so many suicides because it impairs clear thinking and decision-making, while at the same time lowering inhibitions. In retrospect, it seems as if Avicii was at the crux of a “perfect storm” of contributing factors – alcohol, depression, pressure to perform, stress, lingering pain, and opioids. At one time or another, Avicii was impacted by each of these.×708.jpg

Worried Friends and Family Members

For years, those closest to Avicii worried that his alcohol-fueled, hard-partying lifestyle would eventually take his life. They were right, but not in the way they expected – he didn’t die of an overdose, he died by his own hand. Many people don’t realize that addiction kills in multiple ways:

  • Overdose
  • Accidents
  • Violence
  • Suicide
  • Disease

Because his brother arrived in Oman within just a few hours after Avicii’s suicide, some are suggesting that his family was concerned about his state of mind and feared the worst. One source told People, “Avicii’s family spoke to him on the phone earlier that week and got very worried about his mental state. His brother flew to Oman to bring him home and arrived only a couple of hours too late.” A photograph taken the day before he died showed Avicii aboard a yacht with what appears to be an alcoholic beverage in his hand.

“We accept many health insurance plans. Get your life back in order, take a look at our residential program.”

What We Can Learn from Avicii’s Tragic Death

I know I am blessed to be able to travel all around the world and perform, but I have too little left for the life of a real person behind the artist.” ~ Avicii The most important takeaway from this cautionary tale is the urgent need for intervention and professional help when mental illness or addiction manifests in a person’s life. Avicii was abusing alcohol, depressed, anxious, overworked, stressed, and at times even physically ill, but there are no reports suggesting that he was receiving any sort of substance abuse or mental health treatment. When his family finally did respond, it was tragically too late. This underscores one of the most important things to keep in mind – the best time to get help is ALWAYS right now.