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How are Addiction, Depression and Suicide Linked?

September is National Suicide Prevention Month and September 10 is World Suicide Prevention Day. “Creating Hope Through Action” is the theme for the World Suicide Prevention Day; according to the World Health Organization (WHO), this theme “serves as a powerful call to action and reminder that there is an alternative to suicide and that through our actions, we can encourage hope and strengthen prevention.”

Having a loved one who struggles with drug or alcohol addiction, clinically referred to as a substance use disorder (SUD), creates fear and worry. At the forefront of those concerns is the possibility of an overdose or being involved in a serious accident. But another prevalent issue associated with addiction is the risk of suicide.

Even though suicide is a well-documented risk among people with mental health disorders, studies have also shown suicide shares a dangerous and undeniable link with the disease of addiction. This article discusses the connection between addiction, depression, and suicide and ways we can take action to prevent suicide.

If you are experiencing an emergency, help is available. Call 911 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) for assistance.

A Look at the Numbers

Globally, suicide is one of the leading causes of death. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), more than 700,000 people die due to suicide every year.1 In the United States alone, suicide was among the top nine leading causes of death for people between the ages of 10 and 64 and was the second leading cause of death for people between the ages of 10 and 14 and 20 and 34, according to 2021 data from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).2

Additional 2021 data from the CDC found that in the United States:2

  • 48,000 people died due to suicide.
  • 3 million people thought about suicide.
  • 5 million people planned a suicide attempt.
  • 7 million people attempted suicide.

Suicide rates vary based on several factors, including age, ethnicity, geographic location, occupation, sexual orientation, and veteran status.2 For example, non-Hispanic American Indian/Alaska Native individuals have the highest suicide rates, followed by non-Hispanic White individuals, meaning these groups experience a higher prevalence of suicide compared to others. Veterans and other individuals who have served in the military also experience higher-than-average rates of suicide. The challenges and experiences faced by veterans can contribute to this elevated risk. Meanwhile, young people who identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual have a higher prevalence of suicidal behaviors and thoughts compared to people who identify as heterosexual. This may suggest that sexual orientation can be a factor in suicide risk.2

The Role of Mental Health

News of Robin Williams’ suicide has placed the link between addiction and depression in the spotlight. In the past, the actor spoke candidly about his struggles with addiction and depression, along with his ongoing treatment efforts.

Unfortunately, people who struggle with substance use disorder (SUD) have an increased likelihood of experiencing a co-occurring disorder, such as depression, compared to those who do not struggle with addiction.3

Research suggests several potential explanations for the co-occurrence of SUD and other mental health disorders, such as:3

  • Common risk factors: Both SUD and mental health disorders can share common risk factors, including genetic predisposition and environmental influences like stress or trauma.
  • Mental health disorders as precursors: Individuals with mental health disorders like anxiety or depression may use drugs or alcohol as a form of self-medication. Although substances may provide temporary relief, they can worsen mental health symptoms over time.
  • Substance use as precursors: Substance use can trigger changes in brain function and structure, making individuals more prone to developing other mental disorders.

Co-occurring disorder treatment, sometimes referred to as dual diagnosis treatment, addresses both disorders simultaneously. It often includes medication and therapy tailored to an individual’s needs. Studies show that co-occurring disorder treatment can lead to better patient outcomes than treatment that does not address both disorders. Dr. Jeffrey Borenstein, president of the Brain and Behavior Research Foundation, says, “If you only treat the depression without treating the chemical dependency, you won’t be successful in really helping the person.”

Addiction and Suicide

In many countries, suicide rates are higher among individuals with substance use disorder (SUD) compared to the general population.2

Substance misuse problems contribute to suicidal behavior in several ways. Alcohol use disorder (AUD) and opioid use disorder (OUD), for example, are strongly associated with an increased risk of suicide, compared to other mental health conditions.4

Studies show that higher alcohol consumption per person corresponds with higher suicide rates. Since 2001, the past-year prevalence of alcohol misuse, including high-risk drinking and AUD, has risen significantly, coinciding with a 35% increase in alcohol-related suicides. Chronic alcohol use significantly increases the risk of suicidal behavior, with AUD being associated with a 10-fold higher risk of suicide compared to the general population.4 Meanwhile, studies show that people who use opioids are 14 times more likely to die by suicide compared to the general population.4

Taking Action to Prevent Suicide 

  • Recognize the warning signs: Learn to identify signs like talking about being a burden or withdrawing from family.
  • Encourage open communication: Encourage open conversations about concerns and feelings and concerns. Let individuals know you’re there to listen.
  • Create a supportive environment: Foster a supportive environment where individuals feel safe sharing their struggles.
  • Seek professional help: Encourage at-risk individuals to reach out to mental health professionals or crisis hotlines for immediate support.
  • Remove access to lethal means: Remove access to drugs, firearms, or sharp objects that might be used for self-harm.
  • Promote resilience: Encourage resilience-building activities like exercise, mindfulness, and stress management.
  • Follow up: After a crisis has passed, continue to check in and offer support to individuals who may be at risk.
  • Stay informed: Be aware of available mental health resources, support groups, and crisis helplines.
  • Reduce stigma: Help reduce the stigma surrounding mental health issues and seeking help.
  • Parental involvement: Parents should stay connected with their children and be aware of any signs of distress. Monitor online activity to identify potential signs of cyberbullying or distress.
  • Know the crisis helplines: Promote local and national crisis helplines as a resource for immediate help.

Remember that suicide prevention is a collective effort, and every small action can make a significant difference in saving lives. If these options are not available, call 911 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) for assistance.

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