Drug Abuse and Suicide
According to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, drug abuse, depression, and suicide are interconnected, contributing to each other in various ways.1 They each have similar risk factors, and the interventions for one can greatly impact the others. To fully understand the interplay between all three issues, it helps to know the basics that factor into each one.
What Does Substance Abuse Look Like?
When it comes to substance abuse, everyone is susceptible. After repeated use of a drug, parts of the brain that impact self-control become affected. The brain changes, changing a person’s ability to make healthy decisions and appropriately assess risks. Because of these brain alterations, quitting drug use becomes exceptionally challenging, even when the person using drugs wants to stop. For some individuals, addiction can occur after the first use of a drug.2
Commonly Used Substances
Although widely available, alcohol is the most commonly used drug in the U.S. Based on data from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), about 50% to 60% of people ages 18 and older use alcohol. Alcoholic beverages are easy to obtain and use in social situations, so the chances of alcohol exposure are more significant than that of other drugs.3
Unfortunately, alcohol is also an addictive substance. Data from SAMHSA indicates that about 5%-10% of individuals over the age of 18 have an alcohol use disorder.3 Other drugs commonly abused drugs include marijuana, opioids (heroin, oxycodone, etc.), hallucinogens (mushrooms, LSD, etc.), and methamphetamines.
Signs and Symptoms of Addiction
How substance abuse manifests itself in each person can be different, as it depends on the individual and the extent of their drug use. However, there are some common signs and symptoms to look for:4
- The person needs larger doses of the drug to have the same effect.
- Despite a desire to control their use due to adverse effects, the person cannot stop or cut down.
- A lot of time is spent doing activities to get the drug or recover from its effects.
- The person stops fulfilling their roles and responsibilities at work, school, or at home.
- The person uses the substances in instances where the environment is physically dangerous.
- The person withdraws from people who do not participate in their drug use.
- The person experiences withdrawal symptoms when they stop using the drug.
Substance Abuse and Suicide
Current research indicates that a strong link exists between substance abuse and suicide. For example, struggling with addiction increases the likelihood of depression or committing suicide.5 Addiction negatively affects one’s relationships, finances, and careers, and it can cause people to become despondent about their situation— making them feel suicidal.6 Alternately, thoughts of suicide and feelings of depression can push a person towards substance use, thereby fueling an addiction.7
Some drugs may also contribute to the risk of suicide more than others. Opioids are a significant example of drugs that increase someone’s chance of committing suicide. The 2018 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Violent Death Reporting System (NVDRS) data connects opioids to 33% of all suicide cases. In addition, alcohol-related suicide rates in the US are alarming, with over a quarter of suicides having some involvement with alcohol use.8
Common Risk Factors of Suicide and Addiction
One of the leading contributors to depression and suicide is drugs and alcohol. Over 50% of all suicides are linked to alcohol or drug abuse. Sadly, about over 25% of people addicted to such substances commit suicide. Adolescents are especially at risk, with over 70% of adolescent suicides impacted by drugs or alcohol.
However, older individuals who have drug addictions are also at risk for suicide. They often have physical ailments, experience psychiatric illnesses, and are socially isolated — all factors that contribute to their addiction and create suicidal thoughts. Some common risk factors for suicide and addiction include:
- Genetics or a family history
- Trauma, especially during childhood
- Unemployment or poverty
- Loss of a loved one, job, or home
Suicide Warning Signs
What makes suicide exceptionally tragic is that it is preventable. The stigma that surrounds drug abuse, depression, and suicide and plays a part in how suicide is managed, making people uneasy about discussing negative emotions and thoughts of death. However, having a conversation about suicide does not increase suicide ideation, otherwise known as thoughts about suicide. Talking about suicide can open the doors to intervention and help someone identify suicide warning signs, all of which contribute to saving one’s life.
When someone experiences suicide ideation, they may show the following signs:8
- Feeling hopeless and trapped
- Thinking they have no reason to be alive
- Stating that they want to die
- Talk about feeling guilt or feeling ashamed of themselves
- Talking about feeling like they are a burden to the people around them
- Feeling agitated or angry
- Complaining of unbearable emotional distress or physical pain
- Talking about ways to die
- Researching ways to die
- Withdrawing from family and friends
- Saying goodbye to family and friends
- Giving away important belongings or creating a will
- Taking dangerous risks
- Major changes in sleeping and eating
- Showing an increase in drug or alcohol use
Treating Suicidal Thoughts and Addiction
Because of the interconnection between suicidal thoughts and addiction, the treatment of both is most effective when addressed simultaneously. Fortunately, many of the interventions utilized for depression and suicidal thoughts are also effective at managing addiction.
The detoxification period, also known as “detox,” allows the body to recover from the constant use of drugs or alcohol. During detox, the body must relearn how to function without drugs. The body also releases toxins resulting from drug use during this time, which may be challenging both physically and emotionally.
During psychotherapy, clients learn how to change negative thought processes and identify harmful behaviors. Psychotherapy, also known as talk therapy, is performed on a one-to-one basis or with a group, typically under the direction of a licensed therapist. Although various psychotherapy approaches are available, the two most often used are cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and dialectical behavior therapy (DBT).
Medications are usually prescribed depending on the client’s status. For example, a diagnosis of severe depression might necessitate medications to treat the illness. In addition, medications are available to reduce cravings and assist with drug detox.
Inpatient and Outpatient Services
Treatment for suicidal thoughts and addiction is provided either in an inpatient treatment center or through outpatient services. In an inpatient treatment center, a client lives on-campus surrounded by trained and licensed professionals. The staff receives training geared towards addiction recovery and mental health.
Outpatient rehabilitation, on the other hand, is a treatment service that does not require the client to live on-campus. Clients may live and work elsewhere and travel to the facility for regular treatment services. Outpatient services offer more flexible treatment options when compared to inpatient services, and are less intensive, and can help manage milder cases of addiction.
Suicide Prevention Resources
Suicidal thoughts and drug addiction both require immediate attention. The 10th-leading cause of death in the U.S is suicide, with about 45,000 people committing suicide every year.9 What’s more, many of these deaths are preventable by seeking assistance for addiction or mental illness.
Identifying addiction and suicidal thoughts only happens if people are willing to look for the signs and encourage others to get help. The first step to recovery is getting support through family, friends, religious leaders, suicide hotlines, or health professionals.
Help is always available through the following suicide prevention resources and suicide hotline:
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline Hyperlink website: https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org
Suicide Hotline Number: 1-800-273-8255
Suicide Prevention Resource Center Hyperlink website: https://www.sprc.org/
Suicide Awareness Voices of Education Hyperlink website: https://save.org/
American Foundation for Suicide Prevention Hyperlink website: https://afsp.org