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Suicide and Substance Use Disorders

The Connection Between Suicide and Addiction

Time magazine published an excellent piece about a suicide prevention call center in a recent issue, written by Josh Sanburn. In part, this article addresses the connection between suicide and substance use disorders. As referred by the writer we also visited the federal government’s Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration website and viewed its white paper on the topic.

We know that statistics on suicide rise each year. A few years ago, there were more deaths from suicide than from homicide and HIV combined.   Over 38,000 people complete suicide annually; mental health professionals believe that 90 percent of them are impaired by a mental health disorder often in conjunction with a co-occurring substance abuse disorder.

The SAMHSA white paper poses that the number-one risk factor for suicide is depression, followed by alcohol and drug abuse. Post-mortem labs performed on suicide victims came back one-third of the time positive for alcohol use. Of that number, 10 percent of victims also had four other substances showing up in the blood work.

Experts believe that alcohol addiction constitutes a greater risk for suicide than drugs alone. Alcohol is a depressant, so a person suffering from depression becomes more depressed when he drinks. There is also a loss of inhibition that occurs during intoxication, so that someone who might normally hesitate to complete his suicide will go for it.  Use of alcohol also impairs a person’s problem-solving skills so that he cannot see his way out of his problems, and he is likely to act more aggressively when he’s intoxicated.

While scientists and physicians have been studying the effects of alcohol on a person’s mental health status for many decades, there is relatively less known about the cause-and-effect relationship between suicide and drug abuse. Current evidence shows that someone’s risk for suicide is more related to the number of drugs he is using rather than to any specific drug.

Both alcoholics and drug addicts share common characteristics that constitute risk factors: They are prone to depression, impulsivity, and risk-taking behaviors. Many of them also come from a background of child abuse or had relatives who completed suicide.

Treatment professionals recognize that there is a bi-directional effect between substance abuse and mental health problems. That means that in some people substance abuse can trigger the development of mental health issues, while in others the existence of mental health issues can instigate substance abuse. But the figures on co-occurrence of these disorders stagger the mind: In 2006, 15 million people suffered only from substance abuse, and 19.3 million suffered only from serious psychological distress, but there were 5.6 million, treated or untreated, who suffered from both.  The good news is that of those who contemplate suicide, only 3 percent of them actually die.

The hard part, these days, is to motivate people who need help for substance use disorders. Many of them are too depressed or too preoccupied with their addiction to follow through with plans for help. Some of them do not trust government agencies or do not deal well with bureaucracies. That’s why we all have to be more proactive about bringing these people to treatment. You have to bring Mohammed to the mountain, as the saying goes, if that’s what it takes. Call your local substance abuse treatment center today, because it could save your loved one’s life.


Sanburn, Josh. Suicide in America: The People Who Answer the Phone. Time magazine, 11/25/2013. http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,2157455,00.html

SAMHSA. Substance Abuse and Suicide Prevention, A White Paper. http://www.samhsa.gov/matrix2/508SuicidePreventionPaperFinal.pdf

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