DISCLAIMER: The cause of death of Dolores O’Riordan has not been released. This article’s purpose is to educate about mental health and substance abuse risks. It has not been confirmed that O’Riordan used any illicit drugs or died by suicide at this time.
On January 15, Cranberries singer, Dolores O’Riordan, was found dead in a London hotel room. She was only 46.
With O’Riordan out front, the Cranberries achieved worldwide fame and sold millions of albums. Despite the public success, however, O’Riordan privately struggled with trauma, physical pain, substance abuse, personal setbacks, and mental health problems.
Suicide is widely suspected, and O’Riordan’s troubled life strongly supports that possibility.
But new developments in the death of another celebrity may point to another explanation—accidental overdose from counterfeit opioid painkillers. Reputable news sources have reported the discovery of counterfeit fentanyl near her bed.
Currently, an official cause of death has not yet been released, and the case is classified as “unexplained”, but not suspicious. While this means that there is no evidence of foul play, it does not rule out either suicide or accidental overdose.
Taking a Closer Look at this Tragedy
But regardless of the circumstances, the tragedy of a life cut this short bears examination.
Over the years, O’Riordan was remarkably open and candid about her battles. Perhaps by taking a closer look at her all-too-brief life, we can gain greater understanding. While we can never fully know her state of mind when she died under still-unclear circumstances, there are lessons that can be learned.
As to the lingering question of “Did Dolores O’Riordan take her own life?”, we may never get an answer more definitive than an investigator’s best guess, and no answer is going to satisfy everyone.
But we DO know three things—
FIRST, O’Riordan fought private demons that put her at greater risk of self-harm.
THIRD, for years, she suffered with agonizing chronic pain that even affected her ability to play music—her primary outlet for emotional release.
Specifically, we can reflect on everything that we know about her life—using her OWN WORDS—in an attempt to gain better insight into what may have contributed to her untimely death. Perhaps by doing this, we can help someone else in crisis.
The Connection between Addiction, Mental Illness, and Suicide Risk
O’Riordan was a self-admitted problem drinker. In a 2014 interview for the Belfast Telegraph, she said, “I am pretty good but sometimes I hit the bottle…I have a bad day when I have bad memories and I can’t control them and I hit the bottle. I kind of binge drink. That is kind of my biggest flaw at the moment.”
Substance abuse and suicide are closely linked. In fact, substance abusers have a risk of suicide that is more than 6 times greater than non-addicts, and among women, the risk is 9 times greater. Significantly, up to 60% of suicide victims are intoxicated when they kill themselves.
Of special relevance, the abuse of alcohol is considered to be one of the strongest predictors of suicide.
This unhealthy connection is partly due to the additional complication of more-than-probable mental illness. Psychiatric disorders are the biggest cause of suicide, and substance abuse is the second-biggest.
Around 9 out of 10 completed suicides have at least one psychiatric disorder. In a related manner, over half of all drug addicts and more than a third of alcoholics have a co-occurring mental condition.
Childhood Sexual Abuse — A Betrayal of Trust
“For four years, when I was a little girl I was sexually abused. I was only a kid.”
From ages 8 through 12, O’Riordan was sexually abused by a man in a position of trust. Even worse, she had to face him again in 2011 at her father’s funeral.
According to a 2017 research article, female victims of childhood sexual abuse (CSA) have an approximately tripled risk of both hazardous drinking and depression, as well as much-higher rates of substance abuse and poor emotional health, compared to non-victims.
Female CSA victims also are up to four times more likely to attempt suicide
Anorexia — An Addiction to Thinness
“You think it is your own fault…You think: ‘Oh my God. How horrible and disgusting I am.’ You have this terrible self-loathing. And then I got famous when I was 18 and my career took over. It was even harder then. So then I developed the anorexia.”
As a teen and young adult, O’Riordan blamed herself for the abuse—a common unhealthy coping mechanism. Because she couldn’t control what happened to her, she obsessively tried to control her weight.
Anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder characterized by a fear of gaining weight. Sufferers severely restrict their food intake to unhealthy degree because they have a warped self-perception of themselves as overweight. It is estimated that over 4% of women in Western countries struggle with anorexia at some point in their lives.
Compared to other eating disorders, anorexia sufferers have the highest rate of completed suicides. 50% of people with eating disorders also abuse alcohol and/or drugs.
Depression — The Loss of Joy
“Looking back, I think depression, whatever the cause, is one of the worst things to go through.”
The singer had a terrible battle with depression following the 2011 death of her father following a seven-year cancer fight. That, combined with the recent death of her mother-in-law and the encounter with her abuser, put O’Riordan in a dark place.
In 2013, she “tried to overdose”. Because of the circumstances surrounding her death, this attempt takes on even more significance.
Untreated depression is the #1 cause of suicide. Also significant, nearly two-thirds of all alcoholics also meet the criteria for a depression diagnosis.
Bipolar Disorder — An Emotional Roller Coaster
“I was at the hypomanic side of the spectrum on and off for a long period, but generally you can only last at that end for around three months before you hit rock bottom and go down into depression.”
In May 2017, O’Riordan opened up about a bipolar disorder diagnosis that came about after a recent arrest. Specifically, she mentioned how manic phases would interfere with her sleep and make her paranoid, while depressive phases would make her withdraw and lose interest in the things she normally loved to do.
Psychosis — A Disconnection from Reality
“…these were the actions of a very, very ill person. Clearly from the evidence, she was somewhat out of control.”
~ Bill O’Donnell, O’Riordan’s defense attorney
In late 2014, O’Riordan was arrested following a violent air rage incident during which she spat at one officer and head-butted another. She was heard to yell out nonsensically, “I’m Queen of Limerick!”
Psychosis is a common symptom of untreated bipolar disorder, which at the time was undiagnosed in O’Riordan. It can also be triggered by substance abuse. In a 1986 study, it was shown that 19% of patients with a history or psychosis were psychotic at the time of their suicide.
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Polydrug Abuse — Cause for Concern
“I cannot have sleeping pills around, because if I have a few drinks, I’ll take them…On tour, it was just so easy to say: ‘I can’t sleep, I’ve had a couple of drinks, maybe I’ll take one.’ Then you take another. Then you don’t wake up. That can happen.”
The singer also related how her binge-drinking often led to her taking more sleeping pills than she should have. Many sleeping pills are of the benzodiazepine class. Significantly, over 20% of emergency room visits involving tranquilizers ALSO involve alcohol.
A 2017 study determined that prescription benzodiazepines increase the risk of both attempted and completed suicides.
Chronic Pain — A Road to Opioid Addiction?
“(O’Riordan) has suffered an acute back injury. An MRI scan confirmed she has a bulging disc which causes extreme pain. We had hoped that with treatment and rest she would be recovered for [their] tour. Sadly this is not the case and the doctors have now advised full rest for at least the next month to ensure that her condition does not become more serious.”
~ official Facebook page of D.A.R.K., O’Riordan’s band
Years of playing guitar left O’Riordan with chronic back pain. Noel Hogan, the guitarist who was her longtime bandmate with the Cranberries, thinks that pain was a major factor in her death, saying, “She did everything in her power to fix the back problem but it persisted and won in the end.”
But mismanagement of chronic pain treatment is what often leads to an addiction to prescription painkillers. And when those medications become harder to obtain legitimately, many addicts turn to illicit opioids—counterfeit fentanyl pills, for example.
50% of chronic pain patients seriously contemplate suicide.
What You Need to Know about Fentanyl
Fentanyl is an incredibly-powerful synthetic opioid. It is usually prescribed as an anesthetic during surgery or for patients in severe chronic pain. In many cases, it helps people in hospice care or who suffer from pain during a terminal illness such as some forms of cancer.
Fentanyl is often considered a last-resort option for patients who experience breakthrough pain that surpasses other medications. Comparatively, fentanyl is:
- Up to 70% stronger than OxyContin
- 50 times more potent than laboratory-grade, 100% heroin
- 100 times more powerful than Lortab, Vicodin, or morphine
Used properly, fentanyl is considered to be one of the most-effective pain relief medications available.
Why is Fentanyl So Dangerous?
However, when abused recreationally or misused at higher-than-recommended doses, fentanyl can become deadly. Just two milligrams are enough to kill a full-grown 200-pound man.
While ALL opioids interfere with regular breathing, fentanyl depresses respiration to a far greater degree than other, less-potent opioids—and for a longer period of time, as well.
- Because of fentanyl’s specific fat solubility, users without an abundance of body fat are at greater risk of overdose and death. Of special relevance, Dolores O’Riordan—frequently described as “waifish”—was only 5’3” and weighed just 108 pounds.
- Fentanyl also causes users to retain carbon dioxide, thereby causing their blood vessels to dilate. As a result, more fentanyl is released into their blood.
- This retained and excessive CO2 may induce acidosis, which impairs how fentanyl bonds with inhibitory proteins. This means that even more fentanyl is released.
- Surprisingly, fentanyl causes far less sedation than other opioid drugs. This is significant, because extreme sedation is one of the early warning signs of an opioid overdose. Without that red flag, fentanyl abusers may make the fatal mistake of thinking that it is safe to take more fentanyl.
- The dangerous depressant effects of fentanyl abuse are so profound that multiple doses of Narcan—the emergency anti-overdose drug—may be needed to reverse the overdose and save the person’s life.
Counterfeit Fentanyl as a Cause of Death?
“The evidence demonstrates that Prince thought he was taking Vicodin, and not fentanyl…Nothing in the evidence suggests that Prince knowingly ingested fentanyl. In addition, there is no evidence that any person associated with Prince knew Prince possessed any counterfeit pills containing fentanyl. In all likelihood, Prince had no idea he was taking a counterfeit pill that could kill him.”
~ Mark Metz, Carver County Attorney
In April 2018, after an exhaustive two-year investigation, authorities concluded that Prince died from an unintentional overdose of what he thought was Vicodin. Instead, it was far-more-powerful fentanyl, mislabeled “Watson 385” to resemble the generic version of Vicodin.
Like Dolores O’Riordan, Prince suffered excruciating chronic pain. The two musicians were also virtually identical in size – Prince was only 5’ 2” and weighed just 112 pounds at the time of his death.
Of particular significance, investigators said the evidence showed that as Prince turned to opioids to relieve that pain, he developed an addiction. This was not a choice – the singer was known for living an otherwise-sober life that eschewed the use of alcohol or drugs.
And like many opioid-dependent people, Prince evidently eventually turned to illicit sources for his supply. At the time of his death, Prince had no known prescriptions for Vicodin or fentanyl.
Because of the obvious similarities, this raises the possibility that O’Riordan may have accidentally suffered the same fate, but at this time the cause of death is unknown.
Counterfeit fentanyl disguised as prescription drugs or illicit heroin is a growing problem in the United States. Most of it is coming from China via the Internet or from Mexico, smuggled across the border.
As evidence, pill presses are being seized at the southern border at a rate that is 19 times higher than in 2011.
What Can We Learn from Dolores O’Riordan’s Death?
“The world is consuming me and I don’t feel so happy here today…”
~ The Cranberries, “I Don’t Need”
As millions of fans around the world struggle to understand the shocking loss of such a well-known icon, there are some takeaways that can at least provide some meaning going forward.
Because suicide is the leading suspected cause of O’Riordan’s death, let’s address that first:
FIRST, Suicide is not usually an isolated event. As seen in the turbulent life of Dolores O’Riordan, there are many risk factors and warning signs. Although we do not know her cause of death, we know she has a history of attempting suicide.
NEXT, certain life events—molestation, the death of loved ones, chronic pain—can place a person at greater risk of emotional or addictive disorders.
FINALLY, there is a twisted intertwining of mental illness, substance abuse, and suicidal ideation. Someone who is obviously struggling with one kind of condition is at greater vulnerability of the others.
And as to the other possibility, this tragedy MAY also highlight the extreme danger of obtaining drugs from sources other than legitimate health care providers. Counterfeiting is why fentanyl/fentanyl analogue-related deaths are at their highest point since the drug’s creation in 1959.
What this all means is if YOU see anyone battling their own private demons, do everything you can to ensure they get the professional help and support they need. You may literally save their life.
The lyrics of the Cranberries’ 2001 song, “Carry On” seem especially apropos in light of O’Riordan’s passing:
“I didn’t understand the things you’re going through
I never understood, I really never knew…”