There is a tragic link between alcohol and suicide. The World Health Organisation estimates that those who are currently abusing alcohol are at a risk of suicide 8 times greater than those who aren’t. Furthermore, alcohol is known to stimulate or worsen depressive feelings and anxiety. It also increases the risk of self-harming behaviour. It can become a vicious cycle – you have suicidal thoughts, so you take a drink to calm yourself – but this might only make the problem worse.
The relationship between suicide and alcohol has two aspects. Firstly, alcohol’s direct effects on mental health; and secondly alcohol’s indirect impact on a person’s life. While alcohol does not directly cause suicide, it is a major influential factor. And the devastatingly harmful stigma attached to admitting to alcoholism or suicidal thoughts makes it so much harder for people to get the help they need.
The Link Between Alcohol and Suicide: Statistics
There is a long-established link between alcohol and its effects on mental health, including suicide and self-harm.
It is a fact that alcoholics are more likely to attempt suicide than non-alcoholics. Alcohol is involved in about a third of suicide and self-harm incidents, more so in men than women. In Northern Ireland, 76.5% of men over 40 who committed suicide had a history of alcohol abuse.
Alcohol is a major factor in suicide rates for young adults as well. About 70% of those under 25 who chose to end their life had a drinking problem. In addition, suicide is now the leading cause of death among young men under 25.
How Alcohol Contributes to Suicide Rates
The correlation between suicide and alcohol can be explained by numerous factors. First, alcohol causes changes in the brain, which alter one’s perception and behaviour. Second, alcohol can trigger or worsen mental health problems. And third, alcohol dependency and addiction often decreases a person’s quality of life. This, in turn, can increase the risk of self-harming behaviour.
How Alcohol Affects the Brain
Alcohol’s effects on the brain are well documented. Alcohol reduces inhibitions, increases impulsive behaviour, prompts poor judgment, disrupts stress regulation, and intensifies emotions. However, this means that alcohol can do more than convince you that you can dance. It can make it easier to engage in self-harming acts and make suicide more attractive. Alcohol also makes a person feel braver. A drunk person is less likely to fear the consequences of taking their life.
Furthermore, alcohol can have beneficial effects initially, such as making one more social and happy. However, when those effects wear off, the reality will seem drastically drab. This can influence a person to rely on alcohol until it becomes a habit. This will also contribute to the worsening of depression.
While many alcoholics have depressive symptoms to begin with, you don’t have to be a regular drinker or depressed to raise the risk of suicide and self-harm. It may be enough to have one binge-drinking session for a person to do something stupid. For example, alcohol-related hospital admissions for self-harm are much higher during public holidays. This is true even among people who have no history of alcohol dependency or suicidal thoughts.
Alcohol and Mental Health
It is very common for those who suffer from alcoholism to also have other mental health problems. This can include depression, anxiety, bipolar disorders, and personality disorders. In some cases, those who suffer from a mental health problem may have unconsciously been self-medicating with alcohol. The tragedy is, alcohol can make these conditions much worse, or even cause them.
Most alcoholics who attempt suicide also have a history of depression. According to Psychology Today, alcoholism is one of the strongest predictors of suicide. The rate of depression, anxiety, and other psychological issues among those who are alcohol-dependent are much higher (2-4 times) than those who are non-dependent. It is even worse for young adults.
In the case of adolescents who engage in harmful drinking, mental health symptoms often get worse quicker than in adults. Because the brain is still developing at this young age, youths are more vulnerable. In addition, those who turn to alcohol as self-medication when they’re young also fail to learn healthy coping methods, which means the problem will only get worse over time, and will be likely to lead to alcoholism.
Addiction or Alcohol Abuse and Suicide
When one is addicted, all of alcohol’s effects are amplified. Not to mention, addiction itself can make a person feel sad, hopeless, and lost. Thus, the more dependent the person becomes, the greater their risk of suicide with drinking. Addiction can also lower one’s self-esteem, as can any amount of alcohol and drug use alone.
Alcohol dependency can also cause problems for one’s relationships, finances, career, and other aspects of life. This kind of upheaval could trigger depression in even someone not addicted. Therefore, a depressed alcoholic can end up spiralling down to a very bad state if they do not address their addiction.
Drunkenness may force a person into a dangerous situation, such as drunk driving, experimenting with drugs, or engaging in risky activities. And that can result in unintended suicide.
Other Drugs and Suicide Rates
Other drugs can also contribute to the risk of suicide, not just alcohol. Substance abuse in general increases the risk for the same reasons as mentioned above. It can be even worse if a person uses both alcohol and drugs, especially if those drugs are depressants as well.
In fact, many people overdose, either intentionally or unintentionally by combining both drugs and alcohol. Most of the time, the drugs involved are opiates, benzodiazepines, or other sedatives such as prescription sleeping pills.
In addition, the after-effects of the drugs can increase depressive and suicidal thoughts as well. For example, the comedown period after cocaine can make one feel tired and even anhedonic. Or sedative drugs such as opiates and benzodiazepines can worsen one’s depression after a period of use.
Suicide rates for compulsive gamblers are also worryingly high, and alcohol and gambling are often found together and can be a particularly deadly combination. The Irish Government is seeking to address the problem through greater regulation of the gambling industry. Anyone getting into problems, especially of a financial nature, is urged to seek help as early as possible. For gambling-related concerns, Gamblers Anonymous and the Samaritans are two of the most used helplines.
Addressing the Issue of Suicide and Alcoholism
Because the two are so interconnected, it is necessary to focus on mental health as well as addiction. People need to be educated on both topics, and how one may influence the other. Education helps with stigma associated with both alcoholism and suicide, and it will help others be more supportive.
A person who is being treated for alcoholism or addiction should be checked for a dual diagnosis of depression or underlying psychological problems. Although most residential rehabs support patients with dual diagnosis, not all do. Outpatient programs and less-intensive treatment programmes also often focus solely on drug or alcohol use.
Having worked with people with all types of addictions, Smarmore Castle recognises that it is often the case that addiction comes from something more serious than drug use alone. Hence, we always work with every patient to create a personalised treatment plan to ensure a successful recovery.
If you recognise symptoms of depression or have thoughts of self-harm or suicide regularly, you should seek guidance from a professional as soon as possible. If you notice that your thoughts and feelings get worse after drinking, you may be in danger of developing alcohol dependency. It is important to speak to a GP, counsellor, or a mental health advice service as soon as possible.
Get Help Immediately
If you feel that you or someone else’s life is in immediate danger, always call 999 or 112, or go straight to the A&E because this is an emergency situation. Alternatively, you can also contact the Samaritans at 116 123 – their helpline is open to callers around the clock. You can contact us here at Smarmore Castle at 041 214 5111 and we will be happy to answer your questions.