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The consistent use of alcohol and drugs can create a variety of problems. From low quality of life to legal issues to overdose, there are many life-changing consequences that someone with a substance abuse issue may encounter. Another significant risk involved with substance abuse, often overlooked by loved ones and even treatment centers, is suicide, or the deliberate ending of one’s own life.
As one of the top leading causes of death in the United States, particularly among young people, suicide can be considered one of the country’s most significant health epidemics. It is the 10th leading cause of death among all age groups in the United States and is the second leading cause of death among people aged 10-34. In 2016, almost 45,000 Americans died of suicide, with approximately one suicide every 12 minutes, and 1.3 million American adults attempted suicide 1.
Those with alcohol dependence are ten times more likely than the general population to commit suicide, and those who use drugs are 14 times more likely to do so. Additionally, 22% of suicidal deaths involved alcohol intoxication, 20% involved opiates, 10.2% involved marijuana, 4.6% involved cocaine, and 3.4% involved amphetamines 2.
According to multiple studies, over 50% of suicides are associated with dependence on drugs and alcohol, and at least 25% of people with alcohol or drug addiction commit suicide. Additionally, more than 70% of adolescent suicides are associated with drug and alcohol use and dependence 3.
Substances of abuse can cause alterations in brain chemistry. Substance abuse alters the brain’s pleasure and reward system, causing the brain to prioritize substances over other activities that would typically create feelings of joy. The brain chemistry alterations explain why people with substance use disorders often stop engaging in activities they once enjoyed 8.
Substances also alter brain chemistry by manipulating the neurotransmitters responsible for mood and judgment, causing feelings of apathy or low motivation and creating issues with interpersonal relationships. In this case, there is a general feeling of hopelessness, which can ultimately lead to suicide if not properly treated 3.
The poor judgment caused by brain chemistry changes can cause someone with a substance use disorder to commit suicide out of impulse, rather than with a plan. People with substance use disorders and suicidal ideations have an elevated risk of impulsively attempting suicide, which is important to note, as one of the critical indicators in predicting suicide is whether or not someone has a plan 9.
Genetics also has a role in the connection between substance abuse and suicide, as the two may have a common genetic cause. Genetic factors cause some people to have a higher likelihood of developing substance abuse disorders than others. Additionally, a family history of addiction or alcoholism creates a higher probability of developing similar issues 10.
Similarly, suicidal thoughts, attempts, and completion can result, in part, from a family history of suicide. Genetics can also play a role in developing depressive disorders and impulsive behaviors, which can ultimately result in suicide attempts, as depression is one of the leading causes of suicide 10.
Various risk factors may aid in the development of a substance use disorder or addiction in someone who uses substances.
Common risk factors for substance abuse include health factors, environmental factors, and historical factors:
As with substance abuse, several risk factors may cause someone to experience suicidal thoughts and attempt or commit suicide. Risk factors for suicide also include health factors, environmental factors, and historical factors.
As with substance abuse, no single risk factor can determine whether someone will develop suicidal ideations. It is essential to understand that exposure to these risk factors does not guarantee that someone will develop thoughts of suicide or attempt suicide.
In most cases, stress does not lead to suicide. However, if extreme distress does lead to thoughts of suicide, the verbal expression of these thoughts is a cry for help and should be taken seriously 16.
Substance abuse and suicide share many common risk factors. Again, it is crucial to recognize that no one risk factor is the sole cause of suicide or substance abuse. A combination of multiple risk factors can determine whether someone might develop a substance use disorder or thoughts of suicide.
Exposure to multiple risk factors, including depression and substance abuse, does not determine with certainty that someone will consider suicide. However, if someone does express thoughts of suicide, they are always to be taken seriously.
If someone has attempted suicide in the past, they are at very high risk for doing so again when triggered. While a previous suicide attempt does not guarantee someone will attempt suicide in the future, it is vital to treat the individual and ensure their safety.
While discussing suicidal thoughts is an obvious warning sign of potential suicide, it is not the only one. There are many warning signs to look out for when determining if someone is contemplating suicide. Warning signs include things someone might talk about, behavioral changes, or changes in their mood.
If someone is displaying these warning signs, it is essential to take them seriously, even if they are not verbally expressing thoughts of suicide. A stressful event may trigger the individual and create a situation in which suicide can occur.
Even if someone is experiencing a substance use disorder and thoughts of suicide, the result of suicide is not inevitable. Family and friends of someone with suicidal thoughts and substance abuse issues should begin an open, honest, and non-judgmental conversation with them 17, 18.
Evidence shows that talking about suicide, providing necessary support, and reducing access to self-harm, including weapons and dangerous chemicals and substances, are a few actions that may help save a loved one’s life. Above all, contacting a mental health professional is the best way to get help for a loved one struggling with a substance use disorder and thoughts of suicide 17.
Treating withdrawal symptoms, staying in treatment, and preventing relapse is the best way for someone to recover from a substance use disorder. The reduction of withdrawal symptoms, such as restlessness, insomnia, depression, and anxiety, can make it easier to resist using harmful drugs. Treatment centers often provide medications and applications that may help the brain adapt to the absence of drugs, and counseling and other psychotherapies can help reduce the risk of relapse 19.
Suicide prevention hotlines are available all over the United States within every community. Additionally, many therapists have emergency phone numbers to be contacted in a crisis. Short-term solutions, such as having an open and non-judgmental conversation and creating a safe environment by removing any weapons and drugs, can be implemented until there is access to addiction treatment and long-term mental health counseling.
Simultaneous treatment for both substance abuse disorders and depression can be useful, as abstinence from drugs and alcohol can decrease depression symptoms after treatment. If an individual maintains a long period of abstinence and continues to experience symptoms of depression and thoughts of suicide, it is important to treat the depression and suicidal ideation.
Many treatment centers focus on substance abuse disorders in addition to mental health issues. These treatment centers provide therapies conducted by mental health professionals that aid in recovery from drugs and alcohol while also treating depression and thoughts of suicide. Continued aftercare is another important tool that can reduce the chances of relapse and help someone to maintain healthy thoughts.
Listen to Lisa Klein and Carol Graham from a Brookings Institution event discuss the relationship between drug abuse and suicide.
“I would much rather die than go into rehab again,” says as Klein recalls what a drug rehabilitation clinician had told her.
“It’s a story of ‘you’ll do anything to relieve the pain’,” says Graham.
U.S. National Library of Medicine. (1970, January 1). Addressing suicidal thoughts and behaviors in substance abuse treatment. National Center for Biotechnology Information. Retrieved January 25, 2022, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK64022/