Alcohol and Suicide | The Deadly Relationship

Robert Gerchalk

Robert is our health care professional reviewer of this website. He worked for many years in mental health and substance abuse facilities in Florida, as well as in home health (medical and psychiatric), and took care of people with medical and addictions problems at The Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. He has a nursing and business/technology degrees from The Johns Hopkins University.

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Understanding the Lethal Link Between Alcohol and Suicide

“I have absolutely no pleasure in the stimulants in which I sometimes so madly indulge. It has not been in the pursuit of pleasure that I have periled life and reputation and reason. It has been the desperate attempt to escape from torturing memories, from a sense of insupportable loneliness and a dread of some strange impending doom.” – Edgar Allen Poe

When things get tough, when it’s hard to cope, when feelings become too much – places where we all have been – the need to make it through becomes eminent. As this is something we all can relate to in one way or another, it should be easy to understand why you or someone you love has turned to alcohol to soothe or numb the pain. After all, it’s a quick and readily available solution, right? Well, quick and readily available – yes. A solution – no.

Alcohol Abuse and Suicidal Behaviors

Alcohol is a depressant. This is pretty commonly known, but not properly acknowledged in the way it should be as the immediate effects of a few drinks can feel far from depressing. And if you are drinking as a way of coping when things get hard and you are feeling down, the mood-enhancing effects of alcohol are undeniably tempting. Whether we are aware of it or not, this is a form of self-medicating. The unfortunate truth is this behavior results in a downward spiral effect. Individuals who drink heavily are more likely to be depressed or suicidal. It is also commonly known that drinking lowers an individual’s inhibitions, impairs their ability to make smart decisions regardless of the consequences. Did you know the use of alcohol also simultaneously increases negative feelings about oneself, thus continuing the cycle of depression and suicidal thoughts?

Alcohol abuse and suicidal behaviors lead to more destructive behaviors. For some, heavy drinking may result in depression (this is not rocket science – alcohol is a depressant after all), but these individuals, once sober, the depression goes away. While for others (and as studies show, this may be the majority), drink alcohol excessively as a way to self-medicate against their diagnosed or undiagnosed depression or various other mental health disorders. Whichever category you or a loved one fall into, we are all ultimately trying to achieve the same goal – to find a way to tolerate the pain and find a way through to tomorrow. Seeking help through self-care and education, support systems with family and friends, and professional support will provide you or someone you love with the means to gain new methods to achieve what you need and beat the cycle of abuse – it truly will save your life.

The Facts: Alcohol Increases the Risk of Suicide

Although we all may be pros at fooling ourselves when it relates to something we find difficult to admit, the facts don’t lie. Alcohol abuse education is important to understanding what you or someone you love is going through. It is even more important as it relates to individuals who are using alcohol as a way to cope with depression as they might even know how much worse they are making their symptoms and increasing the risk of suicide. Let’s look at the basics:

Alcohol: A False Friend

Drinking alcohol is generally viewed as a social norm and a way of having a good time – happy hour, weddings, parties, events, fundraisers – you name it. However, as previously noted, alcohol works as a depressant to our systems. What does that mean to you? Alcohol will not make you feel better – maybe in the moment but the moment is fleeting. Simply stated, if you are already feeling down and out, adding alcohol will only make it worse as it will heighten the depression and ultimately lead an individual ending their life.

Impulsiveness and Alcohol

As suicide is often considered an impulsive act, of course consuming alcohol will increase the risk of suicide. Alcohol increases impulsiveness and lowers our inhibitions, causing, quite literally, lethal effects. Let’s look at the numbers. One in ten people in the U.S. abuse alcohol. Alcohol is involved in 40% of all suicides. What this means is, if you abuse alcohol, you’re four times more likely to die from suicide.

The Deadly Relationship

There is an undeniable relationship between alcohol and suicide, and this relationship is quite literally one of the most toxic combinations in yours or a loved one’s life. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDCP) study in 2009 measured blood alcohol levels post mortem and found that one in four suicide victims were legally drunk. Hence, when alcohol is involved, you are four times more likely to die from suicide. According to the CDCP report, the relationship between alcohol and suicide is described as one which “leads to disinhibition, and it can enhance feelings of hopelessness and depression.”

What are some of the factors contributing to this relationship? Here are a few:

Alcohol and Mental Health

Heavy drinking only makes mental health issues worse. According to the American Psychological Association, “Alcohol abuse and alcoholism can worsen existing conditions such as depression or induce new problems such as serious memory loss, depression, or anxiety.” Alcohol is only adding to the problem, not helping. The limited relief one experiences from alcohol is diminished by the risk one is putting themselves in by consuming it.

Suicidal Behavior

Research has shown that alcohol is often associated with suicidal behavior. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, “Alcohol abuse may lead to suicidality through disinhibition, impulsiveness, and impaired judgment, but it may also be used as a means to ease the distress associated with committing an act of suicide.” As previously noted, alcohol lowers an individual’s inhibitions – ya know, the ones that might otherwise stop us from doing something regrettable – and in turn causes deadly consequences.

Coexistence of Alcohol Use Disorder and Depression

Alcohol use disorder and depression often go hand in hand. Statistics indicate that at any given time, up to 50 percent of people with alcohol use disorder are also suffering from a major depressive disorder. The link between the two is easy to understand as alcohol is proven to be one of the easiest ways to self-medicate. In addition, drinking while taking antidepressants is also a very bad idea as it can worsen symptoms and side effects, cause drowsiness, impair alertness and even potentially cause a dangerous reaction depending on your medication.

Suicide Warnings Signs, Prevention and Resources Warning Signs

While some warning signs might be quite obvious, others might be subtle and easily missed. It’s crucial to pay attention and look out for these signs:

1. Talking about suicide openly.
If someone you know threatens to kill themselves, take it seriously. This should always be treated as an urgent concern.

2. Withdrawal from family and friends.
If someone you love stops communicating or their behavior changes significantly, it’s time to get them help.

3. Giving away possessions.
If someone starts giving away their things, it’s a sign that they may need help. Be there for them and seek assistance.

4. Increasing use of alcohol and/or drugs.
Increased substance use is a clear sign of distress. If you know someone who is self-medicating with alcohol or drugs, get them the help they need.

5. A sudden period of happiness after an episode of depression.
If someone goes from being deeply depressed to suddenly appearing happy, they may have found what they think is a permanent solution – suicide.

6. Making comments as if they are not going to see others again.
Recognize these behaviors as cries for help. Even if the individual doesn’t explicitly acknowledge it, they may be in desperate need of support.

7. An obsession with death or actively seeking tools to commit suicide with.
Watch out for signs that someone is actively planning or preparing for suicide.

8. Increased impulsive acts.
Increased impulsivity may be directly linked to alcohol use, as we are all aware by now, drinking can increase the likelihood of impulsive acts.

Prevention

There is hope, as suicide can often be prevented if the right steps are taken. Whether you or someone you love is struggling and needs to take action, educating yourself on recognizing the symptoms and finding the help could prove to be vital in a life or death situation. The following are some helpful aids in suicide prevention:

1. Reach Out

First and foremost, if you or someone you love is experiencing suicidal thoughts, talk to someone about it. If you are not sure who to talk to, please use the National Suicide Prevention Line, which offers a free and confidential service on 1-800-273-TALK. If you believe the risk is imminent, please go to the nearest hospital and seek emergency care.

2. Take All Talk Seriously

Suicidal talk should never be ignored or not taken seriously. It is important to not make individuals feel guilty about their feelings as it might only make them feel worse. Let them know you are here to help.

3. Speak Up

Although you might have made a promise not to tell anyone, if an individual tells you they are feeling suicidal thoughts or have been thinking about taking their life, tell someone! Get them help! Their life is at risk and they are coming to you for help.

4. Offer Support

Encourage the individual to talk about how they are feeling. Listen to what they are saying without judgment and aid them in seeking help from a medical professional as soon as possible.

5. Address Substance Abuse

Individuals who abuse alcohol and/or drugs should be made aware of the treatment options available for their addiction. Help them find medical help. Sobriety could ultimately save their lives.

Resources for Help

If you believe that you or a loved one is experiencing suicidal thoughts or is on the verge of suicide, below are several resources available to educate yourself and find a way to help yourself or a loved one before it is too late:

National Institute of Mental Health
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
Suicide Prevention Resource Center
American Foundation for Suicide Prevention
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
SuicideisPreventable.org
Suicide Awareness Voices of Education
U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs

Survival Treatment and Recovery

There have been so many studies that closely link addiction and suicide, and it is time to stop overlooking these studies and to start getting you or a loved one the help you need. If you don’t know where to start, go to your doctor. Your primary care physicians will be able to help identify and prevent suicide. Doctors and medical professionals are there to ask the difficult questions about whether you or someone you love has ever considered or attempted suicide and whether you may currently be thinking about or intend to commit suicide. They are also there to let you or someone you love know that they are not alone, that there is still hope, that they are cared for, that they will work together with the individual and their loved ones to develop a recovery plan that ensures their safety and address the issues that need to be treated. You are never alone, and hope is never gone.

Finally, don’t fear hurting someone’s feelings if they are exhibiting signs of suicidal thought or worse. Not saying something is far worse. We worry about those in our lives that are struggling with addiction for good reason – they are at high risk for death (not just limited to suicide). Prevention, treatment, and recovery are all possible when we are brave enough to take the next step. So, if you or someone you know is facing these challenges, reach out, seek help, and don’t let alcohol and despair have the final say. Life is worth fighting for.

For free resources and support, please visit AlcoholAwareness.org.

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