Not all people with addiction problems are suicidal, but substance abuse is a well-known risk factor for suicide.
The risk increases if the addicted person also suffers from depression, panic disorder, borderline personality disorder, or another type of mood disorder.
Understanding the Relationship Between Substance Abuse and Suicide
According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), suicide is the leading cause of death among people with substance use disorders. The risk is particularly pronounced in those who are seeking treatment for alcohol dependence, as members of this group have a 10 times higher suicide risk than the general population.
Substance abuse can lead to suicidal thoughts in several different ways. For example, substances can:
- Alter mood to create feelings of hopelessness
- Impair judgment and problem-solving skills
- Create problems with friends and family
- Cause trouble with performance at work or school
- Create financial stress
- Interfere with the effectiveness of prescription antidepressants
Teens and young adults who abuse drugs and alcohol are the most likely to attempt suicide. However, successful suicide attempts are highest among older adults.
Gender also affects the risk of suicide among substance abusers. About 80% of suicides are men, but this is primarily because they are most likely to choose firearms and other lethal weapons. Women comprise the majority of nonfatal suicide attempts.
Potential warning signs that a friend or family member may be considering suicide include:
- Experiencing recent trauma, such as the death of a loved one, unemployment, or divorce
- Withdrawing from relationships with loved ones
- Experiencing dramatic mood swings, such as being on top of the world one day and sullen and angry the next
- Making self-loathing comments such as “I hate myself” or “You’d all be better without me”
- Showing preoccupation with death and dying
- An interest in guns, knives, and other weapons
- Making verbal threats of self-harm
- Suddenly giving away prized possessions
- Saying goodbye to loved ones
Although any warning signs that suggest someone is considering suicide should be taken seriously, it’s especially important to be alert if the person has a family history of suicide or has made attempts in the past.
The signs that suggest someone may be having suicidal thoughts are often subtle, but it’s vital that you be proactive. If you have any suspicions that your loved one is contemplating suicide, speak up. Don’t assume that they’re joking, having a bad day, or just being dramatic.
If your relationship has already been strained by substance abuse, you may be reluctant to broach the topic of suicide with your loved one. However, it’s a myth that bringing up suicide encourages people to take their own lives. Someone who is contemplating suicide is in severe emotional distress and may lack the capacity to voluntarily reach out for help. Letting your friend or family member know that you care about their wellbeing is the most helpful thing you can do.
A good way to begin the conversation is to simply say, “I care about you and I’m concerned. I may not know exactly you’re feeling right now, but I want to help.” Follow up by asking how long your loved one has been feeling this way and whether they’ve tried to seek assistance from a counselor or other healthcare professional.
If you believe your loved one is in immediate danger, call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room. Under no circumstances should you leave a suicidal person alone, even if you believe you’ve removed all weapons or medication from the immediate area. Caring for a suicidal person means putting his or her safety first, before attempting to address any other issues.
If you are concerned, but don’t believe that your loved one will immediately try to harm him or herself, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (800-273-8255) to be connected to resources in your area. Remember to mention that your loved one suffers from a drug or alcohol addiction so you can receive advice tailored to your specific situation.
How Substance Abuse Treatment Can Help
When a substance abuser is struggling with suicidal thoughts, seeking addiction treatment is vital. Someone who suffers from a mood disorder and substance abuse is said to have a dual diagnosis. Both issues must be simultaneously addressed for an effective recovery.
Medically supervised detox can rid the body of drugs and alcohol in a safe way, setting the stage for clearer thinking. Individual, group, and family therapy can help uncover destructive patterns of thinking and provide coping mechanisms to handle stressful situations and better manage emotional trauma. Medications may also be used to stabilize mood disorders.
Suicide and suicidal thoughts. Mayo Clinic.
Suicide Prevention How to Help Someone who is Suicidal and Save a Life.
Alcoholics’ Suicide Risk Increases With Age.
Evaluation and Treatment of Patients with Suicidal Ideation.