Addiction, Alcohol and Suicide: Where Do They Intersect?

Last Updated: January 5, 2022

Authored by Isaak Stotts, LP

Reviewed by Michael Espelin APRN

It is well known that addiction to drugs and alcohol is associated with many physical and psychological problems. However, one major consequence of substance abuse is often overlooked. People with addictions are at an increased risk of taking their own life. This risk is even more dangerous because it may remain under the radar while the addict’s healthcare providers, family, and friends focus on recovery from addiction.

Addiction works deeper than most think. Even if a person quits using, it doesn’t always guarantee that they will be okay. The risk of their psychological condition worsening after being taken out of their “usual routine” still exists and sometimes even worsens. Addiction, alcohol and suicide have an intertwined relationship that needs to be looked at a lot more seriously than it usually is.

Understanding Suicides: An Untimely End

In the last decade or so, suicide and alcoholism, and addiction in general, have been claiming an increasing number of lives. Both lead to an untimely end to a promising life. Poverty, poor health, and social isolation are well-known reasons for someone to take their own life. Worldwide, about 700,000 people kill themselves each year. It means one person takes their own life every 40 seconds. In the United States, close to 47,500 people willfully ended their life in 2019. Keeping in mind the stigma associated with suicidal people, it is possible these figures are an underestimation.

For people who aren’t comfortable talking on the phone, there is also an online prevention chat version of the hotline that they can use. Either way, there’s always someone there that’s willing to listen.

According to the World Health Organization, globally, suicide rates have increased by 60 percent since World War II. In 2010, suicides claimed more lives than war, murder, and natural disasters put together. It is estimated that for every person that kills themselves, at least 20 more make an unsuccessful attempt at ending their life.

Are suicide and alcoholism the only problem? What causes a person to end their life? And what is the reason for this ominous increase in self-harming behavior?

Well, there’s no ‘one’ answer here. It is a challenging step, and no one just takes it randomly. There are always several factors that build up to create an environment. Where surviving the way they have been getting too much and the combined stress of it all can lead to suicide.

Here Are Some of the Factors That Can Contribute to Suicide:

  • Mental Health Disorders. Those suffering from a severe mental health disorder often have distorted decisional capacity. That puts them at higher risk than others for suicide.
  • Terminal Illness​. Not everyone reacts the same way when patients are told they have a certain amount of time to live because of their terminal illness. Things usually go one of two ways. The patient understands that things have to be that way and spends time with their families. The other category is those who lose hope and want to expedite the process by committing suicide.
  • Poor Physical Health. People with poor physical health may have trouble participating in life the way they would with sound health. That eventually may contribute to them not wanting to continue on living.
  • Personal Problems. If a person ends up dealing with an unexpected personal problem, and things aren’t going their way – there is a chance that they end up suicidal.
  • Financial Problems. There are records of people becoming suicidal after going through a major financial loss. The sudden financial loss can trigger an episode where they struggle to figure out how to deal with things and may commit suicide as a result.
  • Genetics. Children whose parents have been suicidal stand at a 50% increased chance of being suicidal themselves when compared to children that had a more stable life.
  • Drug Abuse. People often wonder if there’s a direct relationship between substance abuse and suicide. Substance abuse causes individuals to act irrationally. They might also be dealing with social and financial problems, have other mental ongoing mental health issues to deal with, or be too impulsive because they’re under the influence. These, in addition to other factors, can end up increasing the risk for suicide.

The presence of one or more of these factors does not automatically lead to suicide. It’s not necessary that everyone that’s dealing with a range of factors like the ones mentioned above will process the things happening to them the same way. While the slightest change in one thing can take down someone, another may be able to handle a lot more without a problem. That is why it’s important not to stigmatize any of these issues, as it’s unnecessary that they will lead to them wanting to end their lives. Often, all they need is some form of therapy to bring themselves out of the dark place, while others may not even go in the dark place at all.

Humans are all different, and how each human processes things is also different.

Alcohol and Suicide

Alcohol and suicide tend to connect. That’s usually because alcohol is commonly referred to as a “gateway drug,” as people tend to start with that and spiral their way down to other, more dangerous substances.

Sad woman lying in her bed.

But that doesn’t mean that alcohol itself isn’t dangerous. It is a substance that alters how a person’s central nervous system works. It produces an added amount of dopamine and endorphins in the brain, making a person feel “happier” when intoxicated.

This feeling might get addictive as the person might not replicate the same effects without the substance. Paired with mental health issues, the drinking can slowly worsen to the point that it becomes a full-blown addiction. For example, people having PTSD and alcohol addiction experience severe psychological issues they might not know how to deal with. That puts users at risk of alcoholism and suicide.

Individuals that have gotten to the point of alcoholism might not just be drinking because they want the added dopamine and endorphins. Instead, they may be trying to suppress something that’s troubling them using alcohol. Depression or other mental health issues might also contribute to the possibility of alcoholism and suicide.

Alcohol And Suicide Statistics

The link between the abuse of alcohol and suicide may not be very simple to untangle, but there is no question that the connection is there, and it’s significant.

In a 2006 study, it was found that 29% of all cases had an alcohol abuse disorder, backing up that alcoholism and suicide is a prevalent problem. In the 29%, 68% of the deceased were men, and 29% were women. This study shows how alcoholism may significantly contribute to deaths, and more so in men than women.

Substance Abuse and Suicide: An Undeniable Connection?

Researchers have been unable to determine precisely how much addiction contributes here. However, the connection between addiction, alcohol, and suicide does exist. According to one analysis published in the Archives of Suicide Research in 2009, approximately 20 to 60 percent of people who took their own lives had a preceding substance use disorder.

Substance abuse and suicide risk exist because it affects many aspects of an addict’s life – personal, social, professional, financial, and medical. A life spiraling out of control can overwhelm a person and cause them to sink into depression with suicidal thoughts. In fact, research shows that suicidal thoughts, plans, and attempts are dramatically higher in individuals who have addiction disorders and co-occurring mental illnesses.

There are also many celebrities with drug addictions who took their own lives. It’s hard to tell whether it was because of drug abuse or other factors like depression, or mental illness.

The connection between substance abuse and suicide is not as ironclad as more well-known risk factors of suicide such as social isolation and depression. Yet, recent studies have shown that this link is undeniable. Opioid abusers are 13 times more likely to contemplate and attempt suicide than the general public.

Drug Overdose Suicide

Drug overdose is also a prevalent problem globally, causing several deaths worldwide every year. Specifically, in 2019 alone, 21.6 per 100,000 deaths had opioids, mostly synthetic ones, in their system when they died. However, with the way opioids attack someone’s immune system, it’s tough to know how many of these deaths were accidental or drug overdose suicide. Most of the time, other factors such as past suicidal tendencies and the presence of a note are used to rule the death of a drug overdose suicide.

What Puts Addicts at Risk of Suicide?

Addiction and mental illness often occur together. People with mental health problems are more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol or self-medicate. Many substances of abuse lead to mood problems such as anxiety and depression, which could even lead to drug overdose suicide.

During the early recovery period in addiction treatment, suicidal thoughts may occur due to mood disturbances arising from drug withdrawal.

Depressed drug addict sitting alone.

Early recovery increases the risk of suicidal behavior because this is an incredibly stressful time for the addict. Recovering addicts are dealing with a host of emotions, including shame, guilt, isolation, hopelessness, self-hatred, and a sense of failure, all of which can lead to self-destructive thoughts. Addiction relapse, financial problems, relationship troubles, or losing a loved one can trigger suicidal behavior in individuals with substance use disorders. That is why suicide prevention programs are often incorporated into the main program.

Drugs and alcohol alter the brain chemistry of addicts and disrupt the reward and pleasure systems. Individuals with addictions stop participating in previously enjoyable activities and seek artificial and immediate pleasure from illicit drugs. Alcohol intoxication is associated with lack of inhibition, increased impulsiveness, and failure to understand consequences, making a drug overdose suicide a possibility. It also makes it more likely for suicidal thoughts to progress into attempts under the influence of alcohol. In fact, impulsive attempts (with less than 5 minutes of planning) are common in people with drug and alcohol problems. That shows that alcohol and suicide can be connected.

Several studies have shown that people (especially teenagers and young adults) exposed to suicides at home or in the community are more likely to develop suicidal behavior. In other words, if a loved one dies that way, it is a strong risk factor for similar behaviors. It puts family members of drug addicts with a history of suicide at increased risk. A prior attempt is one of the strongest risk factors for repeat attempts in the future. Researchers have also studied the role of genetics in suicide and addiction. Individuals with a family history of drug abuse, suicide, and depression are more prone to suffer from these same conditions. However, more in-depth studies are needed to reach firm conclusions about the role of genetics in fatal self-harm.

Is My Loved One at Risk of Suicide?

Substance use disorders, depression, and suicidal behavior are all treatable. But, these conditions must first be recognized in a loved one so that the family can seek professional help. Drug rehabilitation facilities can provide treatment or referrals for suicidal ideation during the addiction recovery process.

Counselor talking to a drug addict.

Family and friends should be aware of the signs and symptoms that a loved one may be suicidal. There is also an urgent need to overcome the stigma attached to addiction and suicide, which are often seen as easy, painless, cowardly, selfish, vengeful, or rash. Never ignore suicidal behavior. Even a person who appears positive and on the road to recovery from addiction can suddenly experience a suicidal crisis brought on by a stressful event. Addiction and suicide may go hand in hand. Seeking timely help and getting treatment is critical to saving a life.

Helping Addicts with Suicidal Thoughts

Friends and families of substance abusers with suicidal thoughts and behavior can take several steps to prevent suicide and help recover from addiction. However, this is a delicate subject and needs to be addressed correctly. It’s necessary that the addict feels supported but can still seek treatment for their addiction and co-occurring mental health disorders.

To Do This, the Friends and Family of the Addict Should:

  • Show love and care
  • Be supportive and encouraging
  • Be open and honest without judging
  • Remove dangerous objects (chemicals and weapons) that could be used in an attempt to cause self-harm
  • Ask the person if they are thinking of killing themselves
  • Stay with the person until one can get help
  • Call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) for guidance
  • Call 911 if self-harm seems imminent
  • Seek the help of mental health professionals

How to help someone in a suicidal crisis? A suicidal crisis in a person with substance use disorders can pass as suddenly as it comes on. Therefore, the important thing is to keep the person safe with short-term risk management measures. Once the moment passes and the person can think more clearly, the crisis usually ends.

If a loved one is struggling with an addiction or suicidal thoughts, know that help is available. Millions of people have successfully recovered from substance use disorders. A life without alcohol and drugs and a life that does not seem utterly hopeless is possible with treatment and faith.

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Page Sources

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  8. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Does Alcohol And Other Drug Abuse Increase The Risk For Suicide? https://www.hhs.gov/answers/mental-health-and-substance-abuse/does-alcohol-increase-risk-of-suicide/index.html
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Published on: January 5th, 2022

Updated on: January 5th, 2022

About Author

Isaak Stotts, LP

Isaak Stotts is an in-house medical writer in AddictionResource. Isaak learned addiction psychology at Aspen University and got a Master's Degree in Arts in Psychology and Addiction Counseling. After graduation, he became a substance abuse counselor, providing individual, group, and family counseling for those who strive to achieve and maintain sobriety and recovery goals.

Medically Reviewed by

Michael Espelin APRN

8 years of nursing experience in wide variety of behavioral and addition settings that include adult inpatient and outpatient mental health services with substance use disorders, and geriatric long-term care and hospice care.  He has a particular interest in psychopharmacology, nutritional psychiatry, and alternative treatment options involving particular vitamins, dietary supplements, and administering auricular acupuncture.