The increased prevalence of suicide in the United States has been well documented in recent years. The latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows that suicide in the US has risen by 30% from 1999 to 2016, reaching an all-time high in 2016. What’s often overlooked, though, is the tight connection between substance abuse and suicide. An estimated one-fifth of people who die by suicide in the US are under the influence of drugs or alcohol at the time.
The link between drug abuse and suicidal ideation is complex. Drugs can alter the way an individual’s brain works, affecting their emotions, cognition, impulse control, and decision making. This can lead to feelings of hopelessness and despair that are common precursors to suicidal ideation. People who are already struggling with mental health issues, or who have a history of depression, are particularly susceptible to the negative effects of drug abuse. This is especially true of young people – adolescents and young adults often experiment with drugs during a period of time when they might already be more emotionally vulnerable and at risk of contemplating suicide.
Substance abuse is also closely associated with increased rates of interpersonal violence, financial strain, and relationship problems – all of which can be additional triggers for suicidal behaviors. Substance abuse also affects an individual’s physical health and can make a person more likely to consider attempting suicide. Furthermore, research has suggested that chronic substance abuse can create a mental health breakdown in an individual, with intense emotional and psychological legacies that may lead them to contemplate suicide.
The connection between substance abuse and suicidal ideation is not a one-way street, either. In addition to being a major risk factor for suicide, individuals who have already been hospitalized for a suicide attempt are more likely to start abusing drugs or alcohol compared to those who have never made an attempt. This compounding of risk factors is a vicious cycle that produces higher levels of drug abuse and an increased risk of suicide.
Given the prevalence of substance abuse among those who contemplate and attempt suicide, it’s essential to focus on prevention and early intervention strategies. In the case of substance abuse, this should involve a combination of education, treatment, and support. Therapeutic interventions should focus on helping individuals to both reduce their substance use and develop the coping skills and problem-solving strategies necessary to prevent further drug abuse and future suicide attempts.
The tragic link between substance abuse and suicide is one of the greatest public health challenges of our time. It’s essential that those on the frontlines be given the necessary tools to prevent and manage these risk factors, particularly among young people who are more likely to use drugs and grapple with suicidal thoughts. By taking a more holistic and proactive approach to substance abuse and mental health, we can reduce the risk of suicide for all individuals and reduce the devastating toll of substance abuse and suicide in our society.