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What to Know About Addiction and Suicide

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on May 12, 2021

Addiction to alcohol or drugs increases the risk of suicide. People who abuse drugs or have an alcohol addiction are up to 14 times more likely to die by suicide than others. If you or a loved one has a substance use disorder, you should know about its risky link to suicide and how to get help to prevent it.

Alcohol and Drug Abuse Common in Suicides

Suicide is one of the top 10 causes of death for Americans of all ages. More than 41,000 people die from suicide every year. A 2015 study found that 9.8 million adults had thought about suicide in the previous year. Nearly 3 million had made a plan to commit suicide. Some 1.4 million attempted suicide. Heavy drinkers or those who use illegal drugs were more likely than others to think about, plan, or commit suicide.

Addiction or heavy substance use is common in people who die from suicide. Here are some facts:

  • Heavy drinkers are five times more likely to die by suicide than occasional social drinkers.
  • In more than 1 in 5 suicides, the person had a lot of alcohol in their system at the time.
  • Suicides related to opioids, or narcotic painkillers, have doubled in recent years.
  • About 1 in 5 people who commit suicide use prescription opioids or heroin.
  • Many people who commit suicide use marijuana, cocaine, or amphetamines.

Addiction and Suicide: Possible Links

People at risk for suicide may struggle with both addiction and other risk factors at the same time. They may have depression or anxiety disorders, chronic illness, a history of abuse, divorce, or financial problems like debt that led them to drug or alcohol misuse.

Here are some of the other possible links between addiction and suicide:

Drinking and drug use can change behavior and mood. Alcohol or drug use may lower a person’s inhibitions, worsen depression and feelings of distress, and cause aggressive behavior, which could turn suicidal thoughts into action.

Drug use impairs judgment.  Drug abuse can cause brain damage. Addiction may interrupt signals in the brain that help control behavior. This could make a person more likely to think about suicide or try it. People who abuse drugs or alcohol often feel hopeless because of their addiction. This could also make someone more likely to consider suicide.

Chronic pain may drive both addiction and suicide. Many people start taking prescription opioids for chronic pain. Chronic pain alone often drives people to think about suicide. The pain can also lead to increased opioid use and addiction, which can increase risk for suicide.

Social stigma. Someone who has an opioid addiction and lives with chronic pain may feel ashamed. Doctors now prescribe fewer opioids for chronic pain because of the risk of addiction. This makes it harder to get prescription refills and may push some people to use illegal opioids like heroin. The stigma can increase distress and hopelessness and raise risk for suicide.

Signs of Suicide Risk

Suicide rarely comes with no warning signs at all.

Suicide talk and planning are serious, direct warning signs. Get medical help right away if someone you know:

  • Threatens suicide or talks about suicide plans
  • Posts online about suicide plans
  • Recently bought a gun or searched for guns online
  • Starts giving away their belongings
  • Contacts people to say goodbye without an explanation

Sudden mood or behavior changes may be less obvious signs. Those changes could include:

  • Saying they feel hopeless, trapped, or have no purpose in life
  • Uncontrolled anger or rage
  • Sudden isolation, avoiding social or online contact
  • Trouble sleeping or, on the flipside, sleeping all the time
  • Self-harm acts like “cutting,” where they slice their own skin

Stressful life events can also be a signal of dark times ahead. Divorce, job loss, or family problems could trigger suicidal thoughts in someone who is addicted to alcohol or drugs.

Relapse is another possible red flag. For someone who has been sober or in treatment, if they start drinking or using drugs again, they may feel like they’ve failed. People who relapse are at increased risk for suicide.

What You Can Do to Help

Don’t ignore suicide warning signs or leave your loved one alone. If you live with someone who seems to be at risk, lock up any weapons in the house. Encourage them to see a mental health professional or their doctor. Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline or contact them online to speak with a suicide prevention counselor.

If you or your loved one is in immediate danger, call 911 or take them to the nearest hospital.

WebMD Medical Reference

Sources

SOURCES:

American Journal of Psychiatry: “A Closer Look at Substance Use and Suicide.”

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration: “Substance Use and Suicide: A Nexus Requiring a Public Health Approach,” “Suicidal Thoughts and Behaviors Among Adults: Results from the 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health.”

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: “Does alcohol and other drug abuse increase the risk for suicide?” “Addressing Suicidal Thoughts and Behaviors in Substance Abuse Treatment.”

Cleveland Clinic: “Suicide Rates Continue to Rise: Is Your Loved One at Risk?”

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs: “Opioid Use and Suicide Risk.”

National Institute on Drug Abuse: “Suicide Deaths Are a Major Component of the Opioid Crisis That Must Be Addressed,” “Prescription Opioid Use Is a Risk Factor for Heroin Use.”

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

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