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There is a strong link between substance abuse (addiction to prescription drugs, alcohol and controlled substances, along with drugs) and suicidal tendencies. The interplay of the drugs used, brain’s chemistry and a person’s personal issues can be overwhelming, increasing the risk of suicide.
Research has strengthened this viewpoint over the years:
- A study published in 1999 showed how individuals with a substance use disorder (either diagnosis of abuse or dependence on alcohol or drugs) are almost six times more likely to report a suicide attempt in their lifetime than those without a substance disorder. (Kessler RC, Borges G, Walters EE. Prevalence of and risk factors for lifetime suicide attempts in the National Comorbidity Survey. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 1999;56:617-626)
- Studies on individuals undergoing treatment for drug and alcohol abuse have shown that past suicide attempts and current suicide thoughts are common. (Harris et al, Br J Psychiatry. 1997 and Wilcox et al, Drug Alcohol Depend. 2004)
- Further, recent studies have rated the likelihood of men with substance abuse dying by suicide as high as 2.3 times more than those who are not drug abusers. (Ilgen et al, Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2010; Roy et al, Am J Psychiatry. 2001;158:1215-1219)
- Among women, substance abuse increases the risk of suicide by 6.5 fold. (Ilgen et al, Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2010)
Drug Abuse and Its Risk Factors in Teenagers
Various factors can lead to drug abuse in young adults, ranging from a desire for social acceptance to insecurity. Common risk factors include:
- A family history of drug abuse
- A previous mental or behavioural condition like depression anxiety or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
- Traumatic events in past
- Aggressive or impulsive behaviour
- Low self-esteem
- Poor social skills; fear of social rejection
- Peer pressure
How is Drug Abuse Linked to Increased Suicide Risk?
Uncontrolled usage of drugs or drug abuse easily affects the normal chemical balance in the brain, while intensifying symptoms of depression and sadness. Attempting to discontinue drug use once a habit has formed causes withdrawal symptoms, which increases the dependency on drugs. This generates feelings of helplessness and hopelessness in the abuser – the drug becomes a necessity at a physical and mental level. The emotions generated in the person feel out of control and can tend to be very unpleasant, leading to depression and suicidal thoughts.
Identifying suicidal tendency in drug abused persons
A person suspected of having suicidal thoughts as a result of drug abuse is referred to a psychiatrist. In the event of an emergency, when the person is in danger of committing suicide, the doctor may bring in emergency help at the hospital. The doctor will determine the exact cause of suicidal thoughts (some prescription drugs or over-the-counter drugs can also cause suicidal feelings). Those whose suicidal tendencies are linked to drug abuse require formal treatment for giving up the drug dependency.
Most suicidal people give out warning signs that can make the difference between life and death if those close to the person pay attention to the clues and trust their judgement. Signs include:
- History of previous suicide attempts
- Depressive thoughts or conversations, writings, readings, art forms.
- Loss of interest in everyday activities
- A recent traumatic event like the loss of a family member, loss of job
- Increased use and dependency on drugs and/or alcohol
- Loss of sleep and appetite
A proper treatment of drug abuse is necessary in order to counteract the effects of the drug on the system that has been causing depression and suicidal thoughts. Both in and outpatient treatments are available, though the recommended route depends on the severity of the problem or the level of suicide risk.
Non-emergency treatment situations are those in which the patient has suicidal thoughts but isn’t in a crisis situation. Treatment may include the following:
- Addiction treatment – Drug or alcohol addiction is treated with the help of a well-though-out detoxification plan, addiction treatment programmes and self-help group meetings.
- Family support and education – The near and dear ones of the affected person can play an important role in providing support. Through their involvement in the treatment plan, they can provide better-coping skills to the recovering patient, and build healthy communication and relationship with the patient.
In emergency situations, like when a patient has realised that s/he has attempted suicide and needs help or when someone discovers a person who attempted suicide, the local emergency number of the nearest hospital must be dialled and help must be sought to treat any injuries incurred.
Helping a Patient Cope With Drug Abuse and Suicidal Tendencies
- The patient must not be made to feel judged.
- Advice and false reassurances must be avoided.
- The problem should not be kept hidden or underplayed. Seeking help for the patient is crucial.
Related read: Drug Addiction and Substance Abuse: Symptoms & Treatment