The Link Between Suicide and Addiction
Suicide and addiction are two escalating public health problems in this country that are also inseparably related to one another—it’s hard to talk about the risks of substance abuse without addressing suicide, and vice versa. That link is perhaps best evidenced by the fact that the leading cause of accidental death in America is reportedly death from drug overdose, according to the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) and other reputable sources. This article will explore in greater detail the link between suicide and drug and alcohol abuse, with a view to showing how the treatment of a substance use disorder (SUD) can reduce one’s risks of suicide.
Current Rates of Suicide in U.S. and Worldwide
Suicide is what happens when someone takes their own life, either intentionally or accidentally. And self-inflicted death is 11th on a list of leading causes of death in the United States. Meanwhile, rates of suicide in this country are on an upward trend, according to an April 2016 report by CNN. Worldwide, suicide rates have risen 60 percent in 45 years, according to a 2005 publication by the World Health Organization. The latter translates to one death by suicide every 40 seconds globally.
Biggest Risk Factors for Suicide
The two biggest, most frequent risk factors for suicide are a diagnosis of depression or another mood disorder and substance abuse, according to a data brief from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). In other words, substance abuse is second only to depression as a major contributor to suicide—and in a vast number of cases, the two conditions, depression and substance abuse co-occur.
Just how much do one’s risks of suicide increase as the result of abusing drugs or alcohol? Individuals with a SUD are apparently six times more likely to report a lifetime suicide attempt than those without a SUD, a 2011 article in Psychiatric Times stated. Another study said those with an alcohol use disorder are 10 times more likely to take their own life.
Substance Abuse and Suicide Stats
The high rate of drug and alcohol occurrence in recorded suicides helps to explain why substance abuse is one of the two biggest risk factors for suicide. More than 50 percent of all suicides have reportedly involved drugs and/or alcohol, for example.
Conversely, too, there is also a high rate of suicide among the SUD-affected population—25 percent (or roughly one in four) alcoholics and/or drug addicts will commit suicide, if the much-cited figure is accurate.
Such stats have prompted the medical community to conclude that alcohol and drug use disorders are strongly related to suicide risk. Indeed, a study in 2009 of the substance abuse treatment population turned up similar results, using a clinical assessment form for suicide known as the “Suicide Status Form II.” Of 149 people receiving treatment for substance abuse at the time, 108 were at risk for suicide: 79 of them presented with “suicidal ideation” (a clinical term indicating thoughts about self-inflicted death, which can range from entertaining fleeting suggestions of it to having a detailed plan in place). And 29 of them had a history of suicidal behavior.
How Drugs and Alcohol Can Lead to Suicide
One reason for the high prevalence of this lethal triad—suicide with drugs and/or alcohol—has to do with how drugs and alcohol change the brain over time, the CDC has said. In the same data brief, for example, the CDC issued the following statement: “Alcohol and some drugs can result in a loss of inhibition, may increase impulsive behavior, can lead to changes in the brain that result in depression over time, and can be disruptive to relationships—resulting in alienation and a loss of social connection.”
Drug or alcohol-induced clinical depression, coupled with social alienation, can quickly turn lethal, inviting the prospect of either intentional or accidental suicide (the latter occurring in an instance of overdose). And the same can be true for those with a dual diagnosis, meaning a SUD and another co-occurring mental disorder (COD). For these dually diagnosed individuals, substance abuse may function as a means of self-medicating the symptoms of a COD, thereby only worsening the condition in the longer term and raising risks of suicide.
Alcohol and Suicide
Alcohol abuse and suicide are an especially studied category of investigations into the link between substance abuse and self-inflicted death. Data from a 2007 National Violent Death Reporting System report found that alcohol was a factor in one-third of reported suicides, with 62 percent of these showing acute Blood Alcohol Content levels (.08 g/dL or more) at the time of death.
Young People at Highest Risk of Suicide Involving Drugs and/or Alcohol
Today’s rates of suicide are highest among young people, for whom alcohol and drugs are also a contributing factor. “Each year more American young people die from suicide than from all other leading natural causes of death combined,” went the sobering introduction to a September 2016 article by the National Bureau on Economic Research (NBER). Meanwhile, the rate of youth suicide has continued to rise in this country, having tripled between 1950 and 1990, and some surveys have pegged the proportion of school-aged youth who have considered suicide or made plans to kill themselves at anywhere between 12 and 25 percent.
The NBER researchers found that the price and availability of on-campus beer seemed to correlate with levels of suicide risk. Where the price of beer was higher, suicidal behavior among college students was lower. Moreover, on-campus students were found more likely to engage in suicidal behaviors than off-campus students, because of higher drug and alcohol use. These results led the authors to conclude that substance abuse prevention policies targeting young people will reduce rates of suicide among young people.
Another study, this one conducted in San Diego, found that drug use occurred in 66 percent of young people predisposed to suicide.
How SUD Treatment Reduces Suicide Risks
Treatment for substance abuse can reduce one’s risks of suicide, by lowering the chances of either intentional or accidental lethal overdose. One study found, for example, that in one SUD treatment population, therapeutic interventions to reduce suicidal thoughts and behaviors succeeded at cutting the number of subsequent suicide attempts by 50 percent.
If you or a loved one is at imminent risk of suicide, contact the 24/7 National Suicide Prevention Lifeline immediately at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).