Mental illness is the most common risk factor associated with suicide completion and suicide attempts, with around 90 percent of people who commit suicide meeting diagnostic criteria for at least one psychiatric illness. Unfortunately, mental illness and substance abuse are frequently diagnosed together, and among people who engage in substance abuse, suicide attempts are almost six times more likely than among people who do not abuse drugs. 

Furthermore, the factors that increase suicide risk in the general population also apply to drug addicts. For example, just as older non-addicts are likelier to commit suicide, so are older drug users. Another important factor is which substance is being abused. Heroin and sedatives are substances with which suicide attempts are frequently made, for example. In short, substance abuse alone increases the risk of suicide and magnifies other risk factors as well.

Why Do Substance Abuse and Suicide Occur Together?

Substance abuse and mental health disorders are often diagnosed concurrently, with depression, anxiety, and ADHD being some of the most common mental illnesses diagnosed in people with substance abuse disorder. While depression and other psychiatric illnesses are the top risk factor for suicide, substance abuse (including alcohol abuse) is in itself a major risk factor for suicide, even apart from a diagnosis of mental illness. Altogether, people with substance abuse disorders are approximately six times likelier to commit suicide than the population overall.

Additionally, substances that are abused by an addict can be used as a means of suicide. The influence of alcohol and some other drugs can cause people to lose inhibitions and engage in riskier behavior than they would otherwise. There is also the unfortunate fact that many people abuse alcohol and other drugs as a way to self-medicate symptoms of depression and other psychiatric illnesses. Though illicit substances may seem to help in the immediate term, they make problems worse over time. When people stop self-medicating, they may recover enough energy and drive to carry out suicidal plans.

Resources for People with Substance Abuse Disorder and Suicide Risk

Everyone should be educated to recognize common signs that a person is planning a suicide attempt. These often include:

  • Cutting communication with family or friends
  • Experiencing severe mood swings
  • Increased substance abuse
  • Expression of feeling trapped, hopeless, or like a burden to others
  • Expression of wishes to die or “make the pain stop”
  • Self-destructive behavior in addition to substance abuse
  • Giving away belongings or otherwise “getting their affairs in order”

People with substance abuse disorders as well as their friends and family members should know numbers for suicide prevention hotlines, which are available everywhere. Those who are seeking treatment for mental illness may also have access to on-call emergency numbers from their treatment facility. These are short-term solutions, but they can keep a person safe until he or she is able to gain access to mental health and substance abuse treatment. Many suicidal risk management techniques are aimed at helping people through the immediate crisis, ideally with a “hand-off” to more intensive, long-term treatment afterward.

Addiction Treatment and Reduction of Suicide Risk

Because substance abuse increases the risk of suicide, it stands to reason that substance abuse treatment would reduce suicide risk. Indeed, studies bear this out. The suicide rate among people with untreated substance abuse disorders can soar as high as 45 percent, yet only about 11 percent receive substance abuse treatment, and these low rates of addiction treatment can frequently be traced to a feeling of stigma.

Holistic treatment for addiction that includes treatment for accompanying psychiatric illnesses is the best course of action for those with substance abuse disorders. This usually requires a multi-disciplinary team of healthcare and addiction professionals, as well as techniques like cognitive behavioral therapy and medications, including antidepressants.

Those who care about a loved one with an addiction have many concerns, including overdose, accident, or injury. However, fewer people consider that suicide is another outcome of untreated substance abuse. Substance abuse itself can increase the risk of suicide, and when coupled with mental illness, the risk can increase significantly. If you are interested in finding out about substance abuse treatment, we invite you to learn more about admissions. 

Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.