Did you know that this month is National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month? Suicide claims more than 41,000 American lives each year, so now is as good of a time as any to learn the signs of suicidal thoughts in your loved ones and to reach out to them if they are struggling.
We will cover several of the warning signs and risk factors for suicide in this article, with a particular emphasis on the relationship between suicide and drug and alcohol use. We also want to focus on suicide risks in teenagers and young adults – demographics which are highly vulnerable to thinking about or attempting suicide.
Substance Use and Suicide
Drug and alcohol abuse can be a manifestation of depression and suicidal thoughts, but it can also exacerbate those feelings and make suicide an even bigger threat. In either case, it’s a vicious cycle.
Here are a few stats and facts to know, courtesy of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA):
- Suicide is the leading cause of death among Americans with a substance use disorder.
- Having a co-occurring mental disorder in the mix increases the risk of self-murder even further.
- People treated for alcohol abuse or dependence are about a 10 times greater risk of suicide than those in the general population.
- Alcohol use is present in 30 to 40 percent of all suicides and suicide attempts.
- Alcohol intoxication is involved in 22 percent of all deaths by suicide.
- Opioids (heroin and prescription painkillers) are present in 20 percent of all deaths by suicide, while marijuana is present is just over 10 percent of all such deaths.
Alcohol and drug abuse tends to lower inhibitions and exacerbate feelings of depression, which partially explains why addicted individuals are at greater risk of suicide.
However, “more research is needed on the association between different drugs, drug combinations, and self-medication on suicidal behavior,” according to SAMHSA.
Mental Illness, Substance Abuse and Suicide
There’s a wide intersection between substance abuse and suicide, and another dimension is added when you consider co-occurring mental health disorders (depression, anxiety, etc.). The findings in a 2011 SAMHSA survey showed just how great the risk of suicide increases as you add a substance use disorder, and then when you add mental illness and substance abuse, into the mix.
According to the survey, the following types of individuals reported suicidal thoughts over the preceding year:
- People with any substance use disorder in general: 11.2%
- Those with alcohol use disorder: 10.7%
- People with an illicit drug disorder: 16.4%
- Those with co-occurring mental illness and substance use disorder: 30.7%
For people without any of these disorders, only 3.7 percent reported suicidal thoughts over the year prior to being surveyed.
Risk Factors for Suicide
You could be at greater risk for suicide depending on a number of ethnic, health, job, sexual orientation, environmental and a number of other circumstances.
Statistically speaking, the following circumstances make for a greater risk for suicidal behaviors:
- American Indian or Alaska Native descent
- Engaging in non-suicidal self-injury (such as cutting)
- Prior attempts of suicide
- Arduous medical condition(s)
- Mental health and/or substance use disorders
- LGBT orientation
- Current or prior service in the armed forces
- A man in middle age or elderly years (the rate of suicide in men is 4 times higher than in women in the U.S.)
- Access to lethal means (such as a gun in the home)
If you’re worried about a family member and he or she falls into one or more of these categories, then you’ll have to be extra vigilant and supportive as he or she battles hard times and toxic thoughts.
Warning Signs of Possible Suicide Attempt
Worried that a loved one may be on the verge of suicidal behavior? Some specific warning signs to look for are if they:
- Openly talk about wanting to die or kill himself/herself, even in a joking manner.
- Actively look for a way to kill himself/herself.
- Introduce drugs or alcohol to the mix, or increase their use of either.
- Frequently act anxious, restless, agitated or reckless.
- Sleep too much or too little.
- Isolate himself/herself from everybody else.
- Talk about being a burden to family members and others.
- Mention wanting to seek revenge on someone.
- Show frequent, extreme mood swings.
Suicide in Younger Americans
Suicide actually occurs in older Americans more than you would think. In fact, the highest rate of suicide occurred among men aged 75 years and older, at least according to SAMHSA data from 2013. In women, those between the ages of 45 and 54 were responsible for the highest suicide rate.
While older Americans are more prone to completing a suicide attempt, it’s the younger ones who battle suicidal thoughts on a more frequent basis. In 2014, the highest rate of “serious thoughts of suicide” occurred in Americans aged 18 to 25, according to SAMHSA.
And here are the numbers among high school students in 2014:
- More than 17% had seriously considered suicide.
- More than 13% had made a plan to take their own life.
- And more than 8% had attempted suicide.
Suicide also happens to be the second-leading cause of death among young Americans between the ages of 15 and 24 years old. The same is true among 25- to 34-year-old Americans. The leading cause is accidents (unintentional injuries), if you’re wondering.
And if you have a child in college, you have to worry about binge drinking increasing the risk of suicide. The 2013 Youth Risk Behavior Survey found that 74 percent of students who identified as binge drinker had attempted suicide before.
Don’t Forget Drug Overdose Risks
On a related note, don’t forget the threat of a loved one overdosing by accident if he or she is battling suicidal thoughts and has taken up substance use. Your loved one may think about committing suicide and even make plans on doing it, but still a small percentage actually go through with it.
If they are using drugs or alcohol heavily during this whole process, their life may suddenly and unintentionally be taken by another means – drug overdose or alcohol poisoning.
In 2016, more than 4,100 Americans between the ages of 0 and 24 years olds lost their lives to opioid overdoses, according to Kaiser Family Foundation. The highest death toll that year was among the 35- to 44-year-old demographic: more than 9,700 fatal opioid overdoses. There were more than 63,000 drug overdose deaths in total in the U.S. in 2016.
Preventing Suicide Crises
Although suicide-prevention efforts are happening on national and local levels, we encourage you to be active on the ground level to help any loved ones that might be at risk. Here are some fairly simple steps you can take to keep a loved one safe:
- Remove or lock up any objects in the home that can be used in a suicide attempt, such as firearms, knifes, dangerous prescription drugs, etc.
- If they are in an immediate crisis, stay with them until further help arrives.
- Talk openly and honestly about suicide, and ask direct questions such as, “Are you having thoughts of suicide?”
- When they talk, listen without judging and express that you care and that they are loved.
- Don’t argue, threaten or raise your voice.
- Don’t debate whether suicide is right or wrong.
- Ask what you can do to help, including anything you can get for them, as long as the request is reasonable.
- If there are multiple people with the person in crisis, be sure only one person talks at a time – to avoid overwhelming the loved one.
- Both you and the loved one should get familiar with the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline website and phone number.
- If they have also been battling drug abuse, schedule an intervention and start making plans for an extended trip to rehab.
Intervention and Rehabilitation
On that last note, a drug and alcohol rehabilitation program will provide your loved one with ongoing counseling that can get to the root of low self-worth and suicidal thoughts. Addressing those issues effectively also has the by-product of helping the individual stay drug free for a longer period of time.
Reflections Recovery Center can provide a professional intervention and long-term inpatient treatment help your loved one who is struggling with substance abuse and suicidal behavior. Getting a loved one into rehab as soon as possible not only helps with their suicidal tendencies, but it will remove the threat of overdose, as well, so don’t delay seeking help on their behalf.