Over the last two decades, suicide rates across America have soared — making suicide the tenth leading cause of death in the United States. In 2017, there were more than twice as many suicides than homicides. Some experts believe that the rise in substance abuse could be playing a role in this spike.
The Link Between Drug Use and Suicide
If you have a friend or loved one who is struggling with drugs and alcohol, an accidental overdose is probably your biggest fear. You may worry about getting a late-night phone call telling you that your loved one is never coming home or walking into a room to find them unconscious next to a pile of drugs. You have likely never worried about the other danger that comes with substance abuse: suicide.
According to the National Institute of Health, men struggling with addiction are three times more likely to die by suicide than non-users. In the case of addicted women, the risk is six to nine times higher.
Untreated depression is the most common cause of suicide. And because people struggling with alcoholism or drug addiction are almost four times more likely to suffer from depression than the general public, it is not surprising that they have a higher suicide risk. But increased levels of depressions are not the only factor that places them at risk.
Drugs and alcohol impair critical thinking, reduce impulse control, increase feelings of helplessness, guilt, and hopelessness, and may even reduce the fear of dying — all of which can make someone more likely to attempt suicide. Those battling addiction are also more likely to suffer from trauma, abuse, and isolation, which are also common reasons people opt to kill themselves.
Recognizing Suicide Warning Signs
Families often say, “how did I not see this coming?” But recognizing changes in your loved one can be difficult when they are struggling with substance abuse and have already changed so much from the person you once knew. Understanding the warning signs of suicide and what you can do to help is important.
- Talking About Suicide: If you’ve heard your loved one talk about how life is meaningless or how they don’t want to go on anymore many times before, it can be easy to dismiss these comments. But verbal threats should be taking seriously. Suicidal ideation is a sign of severe depression and warrants professional help.
- Withdrawal: Those in active addiction are likely to isolate themselves, so this alone may not signify an increased suicide risk, but the more your loved one isolates themselves, the more likely they are to become depressed or sink deeper into their addiction.
- Self-Loathing: Comments such as “I hate myself” or “Everyone would be better off without me” are a sign that your loved one feels like a burden and is losing hope that their life may improve. Those who feel trapped in a difficult situation, such as an addiction, are more likely to attempt suicide.
- Mood Changes: Changes in mood are a common side effect of drug and alcohol abuse, but if your loved one is suddenly more agitated, irritable, and anxious than usual, you should be concerned. Sudden calmness is also a red flag, as this could mean that they are experiencing a feeling of relief for making the decision to end their life.
Because substance abuse and suicidal ideation are often intertwined, simultaneously seeking help for both the addiction and mental health issues is critical. And while you cannot force your loved one to go into treatment, there are some steps you can take to help.
- Educate Yourself About Addiction and Depression: The more you know, the more prepared you will be for what lies ahead. It is particularly important that you understand that both addiction and depression are diseases, not a moral failing or something your loved one can simply snap out of. Your loved one will need love, support, and professional help to get better, and you can’t provide that until you gain an understanding of what you’re dealing with.
- Find the Right Treatment for Your Loved One: Because addiction affects everyone differently, there is no one-size-fits-all treatment program. So, start researching different treatment centers and their programs to find the best course of treatment. For many, the road to recovery starts with detox while others go straight to inpatient treatment. For some, outpatient treatment might be the best choice. Be honest about where your loved one is right now and what they need to get better, then make the decision that is right for then. Even if your loved one is resistant about going to treatment, do the research now. This way, you will be ready when they make the decision to seek help.
- Know the Resources: Convincing your loved one to go to treatment can be challenging, but that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t provide them with helpful information. Tell them that even if they are not ready to address their addiction, they can seek help in other ways. Suggest 12 Step meetings and maybe even offer to go to one with them. Let them know that they can always talk to you when they need help – without any judgement. Inform them of free mental health resources they can reach out to any time they are feeling down, such as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800 273 8255) and the Crisis Text Line (text HOME to 741741).
- Show Your Support: Addiction and depression can leave your loved one feeling abandoned and hopeless. Be sure to let them know that they are not alone in this fight and that you will always support them no matter what. Both the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention have great resources that can help you provide your loved one with the understanding and love they need.
Addiction is a family disease, meaning that it not only hurts the individual using but also those around them. If your family member or friend is battling addiction, you too may feel like you’re fighting this battle. Adding a suicide risk to this already stressful situation can take a tremendous toll on you. So, it is critical that you practice self-care, give yourself time to decompress, and confide in someone – a friend, loved one, counselor, or support group. Know that you can best provide your loved one with the care and support they need if you also keep your well-being in mind.