Suicide and Addiction – Feeding the Fire Within

Within the last decade or so, the twin devils of suicide and addiction seem to be claiming more and more lives. If people aren’t already suffering from an addiction problem, then other factors ranging from poor economic prospects, declining health, and social isolation have been pushing more and more people to take their own lives.  

Suicide and Addiction – Feeding the Fire Within

Depressed woman sitting alone

Close to 800 000 people die due to suicide every year.

The experts who have noted these ominous increases in self-harming behaviors cannot fully agree on what is causing it all. Some point to the 2008 economic downturn that affected so many as a driving force behind increasing suicide rates, citing the increase of suicides in America around the time of the Great Depression.

Then there are those researchers who point to the fact that suicide rates began to rise even before 2007, with incidences of suicide surpassing those of each previous year. Others point to falling rates of marriage and increased rates of divorces as causes of higher than normal examples of social isolation.

The World Health Organization has found that suicide rates have increased by 60% worldwide since World War II. In 2010 suicide ended more lives throughout the world than war, murder and natural disaster put together.

Recent studies have shown that suicide rates in the US have increased dramatically over the period from 1999 to 2014.  In 2014, almost 43,000 Americans ended their lives by suicide. Add to this grim statistic the lives claimed by the burgeoning opioid crisis in America (almost 33,000 overdoses in 2015 alone) and you are struck by the closeness of one form of self-harm to the other.

The Toll Taken

In the United States, the increase in suicides has disproportionately affected white middle-aged men and women. White women, in particular, have seen a dramatic escalation in cases with an increase of 80% since 1999.

White, middle-aged men, however, are still the most likely to commit suicide. They are three times more likely to die by their own hand than women or any other age or racial group.

The same demographic is culpable for the dramatic increase in numbers all over the world. Men and women between the ages of 45 and 64 are mostly responsible for the accelerating rates of suicide on a global scale.

As far as racial groups go, Native Americans have born most of the brunt of reported suicides, with an almost 89% increase across age and gender lines since the year the study began in 1999.

Other age groups, especially young girls between 10 and 14 saw a triple-fold increase in suicides, from 50 in 1999 to 150 in 2014, although the overall numbers are still much lower than other groups.

More statistics:

  • Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in America
  • Suicide causes more fatalities than car accidents
  • Suicide is the number one killer of men in their 40s in most developed countries
  • Women in middle-age experience not only higher rates of suicide, but suicide from drug overdose, usually started as a prescription drug addiction

Running alongside these increased rates of suicide have been the number of new cases of drug-related deaths. Prompting the suggestion that suicide and addiction form a symmetrical bond, balancing each other out until they eventually negate each other.

As one writer has pointed out

In a sad twist, they (middle-aged women) often make a bid for death using the same medicine that was supposed to turn them back toward lifeTony Dokoupil

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime reports that over 200,000 lives are claimed every year by overdoses and drug-related illnesses worldwide. In the United States alone, the Centers for Disease Control reported that over 20 million Americans struggle with a drug or alcohol dependency.

Faced with all these statistics, one begins to question why relatively well-off, middle-aged people around the world, from wealthy countries, have lost the will to live, amid some of the most prosperous times in world history.

These sharp rises from death by suicide and drug overdose can be attributed to some factors (economic decline, personal financial problems, social isolation) although no one cause can be blamed exclusively.


In a Dark Wood

People holding hands

The willful embrace of death that is suicide is as old as humanity itself. The factors that would push human beings to end their own life are specific to our species.

There is myriad of examples in nature, however, where self-sacrifice is present. Except, those sacrifices are made for either the benefit or continuation of their particular species or some other predetermined, evolutionary trait – breeding practices or the survival of other members of the species, for example.

It is only humans that possess the capacity to be incapacitated by a sense of helplessness and hopelessness so severe that death is the only relief from such bleakness. Human beings are also the only species that fall prey to the downward pressure of a chemical dependency to the point where taking their life seems like the only viable option.

There are few theories that “explain” why someone would want to end their life willingly. Suicide occurs on both a personal and group level (mass suicides). Scientists have identified many different factors that predispose an individual to commit suicide.

These factors range from:

  • Mental health disorders, i.e. depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia
  • Drug abuse
  • Physical illness or impaired functioning
  • Cultural or family problems
  • Genetics, family history

The presence of any of these variables, however, does not automatically lead to suicide. Even without the presence of any of these above, a person could still be pushed to take their life.

Scientists have uncovered other anomalous reasons why an otherwise young, healthy person would believe ending their life made sense:

The Werther effectMass suicideSuicide bombersSuicide clusters
(Suicide contagion) – Named after the character from Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, the Werther effect refers to how readers of the book committed suicide to emulate the fate of the book’s main character, Werther. This type of suicide is also known as copycat suicide and prevails among young people who may have a more idealized view of death
Instances of mass suicide occur when people have ceded their will to the control of an individual who later goads them into killing themselves. The most famous example of a mass suicide remains the death of nearly 900 people at the Jonestown compound in Guyana (although some consider the deaths at Jonestown mass murder since many people were forced to kill themselves)
Generally considered an act of political murder, suicide bombings are carried out by individuals who believe their sacrifice constitutes an act of martyrdom (and therefore an honorable act) despite the fact that they kill others in the process
Having a great deal in common with the Werther effect, suicide clusters refer to a higher than the usual number of suicides occurring in a short period and within the same area. Suicide clusters can sometimes be fueled by media coverage of a high-profile or over reported suicide, therefore normalizing the behavior in the minds of (typically) young people

Apart from the medical and psychological factors that put someone at risk of committing suicide, there are also social factors that come into play.

Sociologists have pointed to a few deciding factors or causes that may push someone to fall into oblivion by their own volition:

  • More people than ever living alone, and as a result, feeling alone
  • The increase in incidences of chronic, debilitating illnesses
  • The sharp decline in participation in organized religion
  • Higher rates of bankruptcy
  • Skyrocketing health care costs
  • General uncertainty about the future

And while many in the field who study mental health disorders have identified risk factors associated with a higher probability of suicide, they do not always determine whether a person will eventually go through with it or not.

Some might suffer from an addiction or mental health disorder, but might not necessarily commit suicide. While someone, who has neither a chemical dependency issue or a history of depression might one day end their life without warning.

While poorer health and lowered economic prospects are both seen as risk factors for an early, voluntary death, minorities, especially African-Americans and Latinos, do not show the same suicide rates as their white peers, despite the fact that the former often suffer mightily under poverty and poor health.


The Interpersonal Theory

Woman experiencing mood disorders

Thomas Joiner, a professor at Florida State University, has been one of the few researchers to articulate a theory of suicide that, as he explains, gives a better understanding or explanation “for all suicides at all times in all cultures across all conditions.”

Joiner’s theory rests on three separate areas that, when they overlap, create the conditions for a person’s likely suicide. One of the defining aspects of Joiner’s theory is that it moves away entirely from previous beliefs and assumptions of suicide having to do with a combination of social, medical or psychological factors.

Joiner’s theory employs at once, a more general and yet, a more personal understanding of the rationale that leads to self-death. The Interpersonal Theory of Suicide scrubs off any other risk factor and presents a theory that can apply to anyone, regardless of age, gender, socioeconomic position, family history or substance abuse problem.

The three circles of Joiner’s theory include:

Low belongingBeing a burdenHaving the courage
Joiner believes that most suicides begin with an intractable sense of loneliness, or the inability to connect and belong. Divorced, single or childless people are all at a higher risk of suicide than their counterparts. The sense of belonging may also explain why African-Americans and Hispanics experience lower rates of suicide than whites since those communities typically have stronger familial and religious ties that preclude any one member from feeling alone, despite the other societal challenges they face
 Losing a sense of purpose can be a precursor of suicide. When a person stops being an asset to their community, to their families, to their employer, the relationship with death begins to take hold. Rather than having to rely on help from friends and loved ones, which some people see as becoming a burden, most people would rather end their lives
Suicide is not easy. Joiner believes that the final component of what would potentially lead to a person’s suicide is the “courage” to go through with it rather than shy away at the last moment. A familiarity with death and killing or even a desensitized view of violence can push a person through to the other side, making the act of killing oneself just another turn of the screw. This explains a great deal about why veterans succumb so easily to suicide, given their combat experience and familiarity with firearms

When presented in such a simple, step-by-step fashion, preventing suicides does not seem like an impossible task. Any of these factors can be alleviated through the simple steps of joining a church or volunteering, for example, so that the festering wound of one does not lead to the infection of the entire soul.

The theory also presents suicide, or the pre-conditions of suicide, as an easy trap into which anyone can fall. The Interpersonal Theory is ultimately inclusive. Suicide and suicidal thoughts can ensnare anyone who has the misfortune of falling into any one of the above categories.

It draws in people from all walks of life to show how previous notions on who was at the highest risk for suicide – the mentally ill, addicts, the poor – do not always apply. Suicide is not a marginal or abnormal behavior that happens only to those whose lives are perceived as being of no value.

Suicide and Addiction: Connections

Woman taking pills

The latest statistics about suicide in America, however, do seem to draw a line between poverty, alcoholism or drug abuse and poor health and economic prospects, especially among whites with only a high school education or less.

Except, most experts cannot agree on a singular cause, from which all other ailments can arise. Is poverty a precursor of alcoholism and drug abuse? Or vice-versa? Do addicts have a higher chance of committing suicide over those who are poorer and middle-aged? How can you tell if someone is actually contemplating doing it?   

Increasingly, the connection between substance abuse and suicide does not seem to be as ironclad as other, more prominent risk factors like depression or social isolation. But then, other recent studies have shown a linkage between opioid users and suicide.

Opioid abusers, whether they abuse opioids through injection or prescription drugs, are 13 times more likely to commit suicide or have suicidal thoughts, compared to the rest of the public.

But this study was not clear if suicide was the result of continued opioid use or existed separately as an unrelated outcome to heroin addiction. In the end, this study reveals more about what we don’t know, rather than what we do know when it comes to suicide and addiction.

What is to be Done?

Two women comforting each other

Overcoming stigmatizing attitudes toward suicide and by extension, addiction has become as urgent as ever. As Thomas Joiner recounted, “We need to get it in our heads that suicide is not easy, painless, cowardly, selfish, vengeful, self-masterful, or rash.”

Screening programs for suicide do exist; only they are applied unevenly mostly because some clinicians might not recognize when someone is at risk for suicide. Given suicide’s inconspicuous nature or that some people might feel ashamed to admit they do have suicidal ideation, some people might fall through the cracks.  

But if someone is in dire need, there are national organizations that can help, such as:

  • – A website designed and operated by the National Institute of Mental Health.
  • The National Suicide Prevention Hotline 1-800-273-8255
  • Crisis Text Line – Geared more toward young people, anyone who texts “help” to 741-741 can be connected with someone

And of course, should someone be at risk for suicide, there are some preemptive moves loved ones, and family members can take:

  • Ask how you can help
  • Take them to an emergency room, doctor’s office, walk-in clinic
  • Remove dangerous objects, firearms, pills, knives
  • Call 911
  • Be understanding, compassionate

Believing someone is in need of help should be the first step that anyone takes to prevent suicide.  Rather than seeing suicidal individuals as simply morose or aloof or uninterested in life because of weakness. More people should recognize how precarious life can become for all of us, which would then hopefully inspire us to help one another.

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