Addiction and Suicide: How Substance Abuse Is Related to Self-Harm
The relationship between addiction and suicide is complex.
Addiction doesn’t necessarily cause suicidal thoughts, but individuals suffering from substance use disorders are more likely to suffer from depression and thoughts of self-harm than the general population.
Risk Factors for Suicide
Suicide affects people of all ages, races, and socioeconomic backgrounds. However, identified risk factors include:
- Diagnosed mental health disorder, such as anxiety disorder, conduct disorder, or bipolar disorder
- Suffering from chronic health conditions or chronic pain
- Job loss or serious financial problems
- Being a victim of bullying or abusive personal relationships
- Experiencing a recent death of a family member or friend
Men commit suicide at higher rates than women, but women are more likely to suffer from suicidal thoughts or to attempt suicide. This is because men are more likely to use firearms or methods that are immediately lethal, while women are more likely to attempt a drug overdose that can be reversed if caught in time.
Understanding the Relationship Between Addiction and Suicide
It’s common for people who are depressed to use drugs and alcohol to try to self-medicate the symptoms of their condition. Unfortunately, this creates a vicious cycle where the addictive substances only serve to increase the severity of the mental health disorder.
Not all people who abuse drugs or alcohol are suicidal, but substance abuse has been consistently found to increase a person’s risk of suicide. Drugs and alcohol affect brain chemistry and impair judgement. This can lead to impulsive actions, including suicide attempts.
Many individuals who are fortunate enough to survive a suicide attempt made while under the influence state that they did not actually wish to die. They were simply experiencing extreme emotional distress and were unable to see another solution due to the use of drugs and alcohol.
Signs of Suicidal Thoughts
Although some people who commit suicide show no warning signs, researchers estimate that about 75% of people exhibit changes in behavior in the days or weeks before an attempt. Warning signs include:
- Mood swings
- Changes in sleep patterns
- Avoiding friends and family
- Poor performance at work or school
- Preoccupation with guns, knives, or other weapons
- Talking openly about death
- Giving away treasured possessions
- Saying “goodbye” to loved ones
- Unexplained cuts, bruises, or engaging in deliberately dangerous activities
The American Association of Suicidology created the acronym “IS PATH WARM?” to help individuals more easily identify risk factors for suicide attempts.
- I – Ideation: Expressing threatening to hurt or kill oneself or actively looking for ways to die
- S – Substance Abuse: Increased or excessive substance use
- P – Purposelessness: Expresses belief that there is no reason for living and no sense of purpose in life
- A – Anxiety: Feelings of anxiety and agitation
- T – Trapped: Feeling trapped – like there’s no way out; resistance to help
- H – Hopelessness: Expressing feelings of hopelessness about the future
- W – Withdrawal: Withdrawing from friends, family, and society
- A – Anger: Feelings of uncontrolled anger or violent outbursts
- R – Recklessness: Acting recklessly or engaging in risky activities, such as drinking and driving or unprotected sex
- M – Mood Changes: Dramatic mood changes
How to Help
Any signs that suggest someone is thinking of suicide must be dealt with immediately. Do not be afraid to broach the subject or worry that you’ll be giving a non-suicidal person ideas about self-harm. You might feel temporarily uncomfortable, but you could very well be saving a life.
Talking openly and honestly about feelings can be of great help to someone who is severely depressed. Listen non-judgmentally, avoiding statements such as:
- Things could be worse.
- You have everything to live for.
- Suicide is selfish.
It is more effective to ask questions. For example:
- How long have you been feeling this way?
- What do you think would make you feel better?
- How can I help?
Remove potentially dangerous items from the home as a precautionary measure, then encourage your friend or family member to talk to a mental health professional as soon as possible. If you don’t know of available resources in your community, call the 24/7 National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (800-273-8255).
If you believe that your loved one is in immediate danger, do not leave him or her alone. Take the person to the nearest emergency room or call 911 if you don’t believe you can provide safe transport.
The Importance of Treating Addiction to Improve Mental Health
After immediate threats of self-harm have been dealt with, it’s important to seek treatment for drug or alcohol abuse. Medically supervised detox followed by group and individual counseling can provide a foundation for wellness. This includes developing positive coping skills for handling stressful situations that might trigger thoughts of self-harm. Waypoint Recovery Center’s treatment services will help your loved one take the first steps towards a brighter future.