Addiction and Suicide

A growing number of young people in the UK (especially male university students) are reporting mental health problems. Data from an IPPR think thank shows that students who reported mental health problems in the first year reached 15,395 over the course of a decade. Meanwhile, 134 students killed themselves in 2015 alone.

Generally, people under the age of 30 have the lowest suicide rates, both for men and women. However, the recent epidemic amongst the student population calls for better understanding of the unique factors that might push a person suffering mental health issues to commit suicide.

The Link between Addiction and Suicide

Addiction sometimes claims lives. It is a risk that’s all too real from drug overdoses; fatal reactions to drug substance combinations; health hazards from long-term drug abuse; and actions taken whilst under the influence of drugs.

One of the side-effects of addiction that’s rarely spoken about is suicide.

In the United States, suicide is the tenth leading cause of death. Depression and mood disorders are cited as the main risk factors that lead to suicide. Alcohol and drug use are a close second. However, research has shown that alcoholism (even without depression) is the strongest predictor of suicide. Addicts are six times more likely to commit suicide than non-addicts.

Addiction, depression and suicide have a close-knit relationship, as more than 90% of those who commit suicide suffer from depression, substance use disorder, or both. The combination of substance use disorder and depression creates a vicious cycle that requires inpatient addiction treatment to prevent the possibility of a suicidal outcome.

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Facts You Should Know about Addiction and Suicide

Most individuals who have bipolar disorder, major depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and other conditions turn to alcohol and other substances to suppress negative feelings and numb the pain of their thoughts and emotions.

Figures from the National Alliance on Mental Illness show that one in three people who commit suicide are intoxicated from alcohol, opiates and other addictive substances.

While mental health and substance abuse treatment might not always provide the desired result, treatment does help. Take the case of an iconic actor, the late Robin Williams, who struggled with addiction for a long time. His early drug use and alcoholism treatment were followed by 20 years of sobriety before he relapsed in 2003. He attended treatment again in 2006 but committed suicide in 2014 as a result of severe depression and addiction. It says a lot about the power of depression or addiction. People might receive help, but still not completely overcome both mental health issues. Treatment is a continuous effort, reinforced by a good aftercare plan.

Risk Factors for Suicide

Just like in addiction, there is no single risk factor for suicide. More often than not, it occurs as a result of a combination of several risk factors such as:

  • Depression
  • Past suicidal ideation
  • Family history of suicide
  • Violent behaviour towards others
  • Previous incarceration
  • Alcohol and drug abuse
  • Family history of sexual abuse and violence
  • History of mental health disorder(s)
  • Ongoing exposure to bullying
  • Physical disability or illness
  • Recent death of a family member or loved one
  • Disciplinary or legal problems
  • Presence of firearms at home

How to Recognise Suicidal Tendencies in an Addict

Talking about suicide – always take verbal threats seriously.

Depression is a serious indicator – watch for signs that the person feels there’s no hope for the future.

Self-loathing comments like: “I hate myself”; “they would be so much better off without me in their life” and “I’m just a waste of space!”

Withdrawing from people they love or isolating themselves from others.

Looking for lethal items that can kill them, such as a gun, illicit substances or prescription pills.

Writing a will and getting their affairs in order in preparation for death.

Relapsing to substance abuse after getting treatment – self-destructive tendencies are a sign of suicidal ideation.

Warning Signs of Suicide in Addiction Recovery

Most recovering addicts deal with thoughts of suicide at some point in their recovery journey. Recognising the signs when going through a hard time allows you to help an addict before they commit suicide. Signs include:

  • Loss of interest in activities they found enjoyable in the past
  • Episodes of intense feelings of anger and sadness
  • Talking about death and suicide
  • Unexplained mood changes after a bout of depression. When a person in recovery makes the decision to end their life, they’ve effectively made their peace with the situation and will appear happier than usual.
  • Impulsive behaviour
  • Saying goodbye as though it’s the last time
  • Pessimistic attitude about the future
  • Lack of concentration

The Link Between Drug Use and Teen Suicide

As a cry for help – or to get attention from loved ones – teenagers often result to drug use. Depression is an underlying psychological factor in most cases. Many teenagers hurt themselves; whether burning themselves with fire, scratching their skin or cutting themselves, roughly 10% of American children self-harm. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for young people aged 15-24 and the third leading cause of death for adolescents aged 10-14.

Statistics show that teenagers with alcohol use disorder are at greater risk of suicide. Abusing drugs makes them act irrationally and in ways that can prove fatal. Risk factors for teenagers include being mistreated by family members, isolation from others, bullying and personal loss within the family.

90% of teenagers who die from suicide have a co-occurring disorder. This wreaks havoc on a teenager with a substance use disorder. Depression is the most common, with two-thirds of teenagers who die from suicide reported to be suffering from major depressive disorder.

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Addiction and Suicide Statistics

Drugs make up 75% of suicide deaths caused by poisoning.
According to SAMSHA, over 39,000 people in the US die from suicide every year.
Drug and alcohol abuse is the third leading cause of death in the US, whereas suicide is number 10 on the list.
Opioid abuse increased the risk of suicidal ideation by 40%-60% and the likelihood of suicide by 75%.
There’s an average of 108 suicides every day in the US.
Alcoholism has a direct link to 50% of all suicides in the US.
British men aged 20-49 are more likely to die from suicide than road accidents, cancer and heart disease.
Every year since 2009, over 100 UK students have taken their own lives.
Suicides cost the United States $44 billion of taxpayers money every year.

Understanding the Addiction Cycle

The brain of an individual with a substance use disorder is chemically, structurally and physiologically different from the rest of the general population. The addiction cycle is the process via which addiction repeatedly manifests in an addict who abuses prescription medications, alcohol and illicit drugs. The cycle is only broken when they receive addiction treatment and learn to live a drug-free, healthier life.

The seven steps in the cycle of addiction include:

  • Internal pain and frustration that leads to anxiety and desire for relief from pain
  • Thinking about using alcohol and drugs or engaging in negative behaviour to relieve uncomfortable symptoms
  • Obsessing about alcohol and drug use
  • Engaging in addictive behaviour to relieve frustration or pain
  • Loss of control over addiction
  • Feelings of dissatisfaction arising from guilt, remorse and shame
  • Resolving to quit substance abuse

The Rock-Bottom Effect of Addiction

Many things can motivate your loved one who has an addiction problem to seek treatment, but nothing is more powerful than realising they’ve hit rock bottom. Oftentimes, the lowest point in our life’s when we realise we need professional help to get better.

Has the situation become so grave that you simply can’t ignore the problem of drug abuse anymore? This happens over a period of time and usually comes to a head after a key event takes place. It could involve:

  • Remorse over a disastrous action you took whilst intoxicated
  • Loss of job
  • Social embarrassment
  • Mental breakdown
  • Deteriorating health
  • Legal and financial problems
  • Relationship breakdown

A commonly held myth is that an addict needs to hit rock bottom to seek help. This is unfounded and shouldn’t be used as a reason not to seek addiction treatment.

There is no real advantage to hitting rock bottom. The real danger is that it might lead to point of no return. Reaching this stage in life is to bring yourself to the point of change before things get so bad, you don’t believe addiction treatment will make any difference.

At the same time, we shouldn’t protect our loved ones from the consequences of their actions. It’s harder to hide or deny addiction if you’re increasingly faced with the impact of your actions.

How Do Specific Addictions Relate to Suicidal Tendencies?

Abusing depressants like alcohol and sedatives like klonopin triggers depression and increases the risk of suicide. Reflecting on the consequences of your actions and compounding it with the effect of depression makes you believe you have nothing to lose and that drugs are the only way to go. You’ve limited your options to re-engaging in addictive habits or committing suicide.

Alcohol and suicide

High levels of alcohol consumption are often linked with suicide. Even with the absence of depression and mental health issues, alcohol is one of the highest risk factors for suicide, because it inhibits decision making and encourages risky, self-destructive behaviour. A third of individuals who commit suicide meet the criteria for alcohol dependence.

Cannabis and suicide

Cannabis increases the risk of suicide. It raises the chances of depression or worsening symptoms in individuals with mental health issues. Long-term cannabis use not only leads to substance dependency and potential suicide, but also interpersonal, legal and psychosocial problems linked with substance addiction. It is one of the most commonly detected drugs in people who took their own lives.

Opiates and suicide

Opiates like heroin have been linked to psychological and social issues that include loss of job, divorce, anxiety, HIV, hepatitis and depression. There’s a great risk of overdose with opiate use, and many have died from accidents, homicide, suicide and overdose – all unnatural causes. The suicidal behaviour might increase during abstinence or withdrawal from opiates. Depression (a symptom of opioid withdrawal syndrome) can also lead to suicidal thoughts.

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Addiction on Your Brain and How It Can Lead to Suicide

Some people experience suicidal thoughts during the early stages of recovery when the brain is re-learning to function normally. The role of the brain in drug addiction, depression and suicide is vital to the treatment of co-occurring disorders.

Depression is a common side effect of withdrawal and worsens mental health disorders. Early recovering addicts are also at risk after a stressful event such as an accident, breakup or a DUI arrest that motivated them to seek treatment. The thought of self-hatred, isolation and a feeling of hopelessness only encourage suicidal thoughts.

The Withdrawal of Addiction Can Lead to Suicide

Deciding to quit using drugs doesn’t exempt you from experiencing suicidal thoughts or carrying them out. Depression is a major withdrawal symptom associated with most drug usage. The danger increases if you’ve suffered depression or mental health issues in the past and used drugs to numb the pain.

Withdrawal depression increases the thought of further drug use and feelings of shame, guilt, hopelessness and possible suicide. Therefore, it’s important to detox at a medically supervised facility that provides round-the-clock support, instead of quitting ‘cold turkey’.

The Stigma of Addiction Can Cause Risk of Suicide

Loneliness is a feeling associated with addiction because you’ve isolated yourself from everyone who cares about you. Societal stigma towards everyday people who’ve suffered addiction doesn’t help. Some people who don’t understand addiction might shame you into thinking you were weak to not overcome it on your own. Others might segregate or judge you when you ask for help. Everyone wants to belong; support is what an addict needs, not shame blame or judgement, as these feelings can lead to suicidal tendencies.

Treating Addiction to Prevent Suicide

Addiction treatment addresses mental health issues associated with withdrawal, as well as co-occurring disorders diagnosed during rehab intake. Physicians, psychotherapists and drug counsellors are better equipped to provide support and medical care that can help you fight thoughts of suicide. With techniques like motivational interviewing, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and Contingency Management, the risk of suicide reduces substantially.


Frequently Asked Questions

As an addict, what should I do if I’m feeling suicidal?

If you notice that you’re feeling suicidal as an addict, talk to professionals to get help with the addiction and any underlying factors fuelling it. In many cases, suicidal feelings are just a symptom of a far wider problem that can only be treated with proper intervention.

What drives addicts to suicide?

There are several factors that can push addicts to commit suicide. However, the inability to cope with withdrawal symptoms and the stigma that comes with being an identified addict are chief protagonists. This is why people around addicts are advised to dissuade them from attempting ‘cold turkey’ treatments for their addiction, as well as treating them with love and care instead of stigmatisation.

How can I help my loved one from becoming suicidal as an addict?

The first step is to find help for their addiction. However, you need to avoid judgemental statements or actions that will make them feel unwanted, isolated and unloved.

What substances are most responsible for suicide amongst addicted individuals?

All substances that affect the natural processes in the brain can lead to suicide in addicts.

Can addiction be treated to prevent suicide?

Yes. Addiction treatment doesn’t only treat the addiction to a substance, it also addresses any underlying factors that have caused the dependence including suicidal thoughts.

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