Suicide and Substance Abuse: Resources on How to Identify the Signs

Suicide and substance abuse are closely linked. When someone is struggling with addiction, they are more prone to struggling with suicidal thinking. Knowing how to spot these problems is critical in helping families take action to protect those they care about, and many resources exist to help.

Suicide and Substance Abuse: Resources on How to Identify the Signs

Suicide and substance abuse are closely linked. When someone is struggling with addiction, they are more prone to struggling with suicidal thinking. Knowing how to spot these problems is critical in helping families take action to protect those they care about, and many resources exist to help.

Last Edited: 02/23/2021

Author: Melissa Knight Melissa Knight

Suicide is a tragic situation that is far too common in this country. It is the tenth leading cause of death. In 2018, the CDC reported that over 48,000 people in the United States lost their lives to suicide.

Suicide rates vary by age, too. For young people between the ages of 10 and 34, suicide ranks as number two, second only to unintentional injuries, and for middle-aged adults, it ranks number four. Interestingly, suicide claims significantly more lives than homicide each year.

These statistics are sobering, but what is even more sobering is the fact that many cases of suicide are linked directly to substance abuse. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) reports that opiates, such as prescription painkillers and heroin, are present in 20 to 30% of all suicide deaths in the United States. In addition, 22% of deaths by suicide involve the use of alcohol. The mixture of mental health concerns and drugs or alcohol has a significant impact on whether or not someone who struggles with suicidal thoughts will follow through on the action. Since 51.2% of adults admit to using illicit drugs and 87.3% admit to alcohol abuse, this connection is one that needs to be explored.

Suicide Rates and Substance Abuse are on the Rise

According to the data from the National Institutes of Health, suicide rates from 1999 to 2018 increased by 35%. Suicide statistics in 2020 increased even more, with one CDC survey finding that 10.7% of respondents had seriously considered suicide in the past 30 days due to stress from the pandemic and other factors unique to 2020.

While suicide rates are on the rise, substance use rates often increase as well. In the same 2020 CDC survey, 13% of respondents indicated they had started or increased substance use. This ties in with the increase in suicidal thoughts due to the pandemic. As mental health needs saw an increase with the political, economic, and medical uncertainty of 2020, many people have turned to substance abuse to help them cope, and many of those have in turn suffered suicidal thoughts as a result.

The Connection Between Suicide and Substance Abuse

When someone is using drugs or alcohol to cover their mental health needs, they have a tendency to be more prone to suicidal thoughts and actions. There are several reasons for this. First, alcohol and drugs dull an individual’s ability to think rationally. People who are under the influence tend to act on impulse, and the impulse to do harm can be part of that.

Second, alcohol and drugs stop an individual’s inhibitions. This makes it easier to give in to suicidal thinking.

Finally, alcohol and drug use often spark a cycle of mental health needs, including further anxiety and depression. As life spirals out of control due to the addiction, the risk of suicidal action increases.

This link has been studied frequently, as these studies show:

  • The US Department of Health & Human Services reports that minimum-age drinking laws below 21 are associated with higher youth suicide rates.
  • In 2019, the National Institute on Drug Abuse reported that as many as 30% of opioid overdoses may be suicide attempts, rather than accidental overdoses.
  • In 2017, a national survey found that people who abused prescription opioid drugs were 40 to 60% more likely to consider suicide than those who did not.

These are just some of many reports and studies that show the link between addiction and suicide, and they show why it is vital to be able to spot signs of these issues quickly.

Spotting the Signs is a Key to Getting Help

Whether someone is dealing with substance abuse or suicidal ideation, the key to getting help before it is too late for that individual is spotting the signs of a problem early, and seeking professional services.

Warning Signs of Suicide

Many people who lose a loved one to suicide report that they had no idea the individual was struggling. The signs that someone may be thinking suicidal thoughts are often quite hard to spot. Good indicators to watch for include these:

  • A change in mood or behavior. If the person is feeling disconnected, becoming socially withdrawn, or is experiencing lingering sad moods, it can indicate depression, and depression often leads to suicidal thinking.
  • Lack of pleasure in life. When someone stops enjoying the activities they used to enjoy, it can be a sign that they are thinking of ending their life.
  • Statements indicating hopelessness, or helplessness. When someone indicates that they cannot continue, saying things like “I can’t do this anymore,” or “I don’t see a way out,” it can mean more than just passing frustration, especially if these phrases become consistent.
  • Agitation, anxiety, or feelings of internal pain. If someone seems highly agitated or anxious and has shown other signs mentioned above, it can indicate that they are seriously thinking about suicide and need help right away.
  • Giving away personal belongings. For children and teenagers, giving away beloved personal belongings often is an implication that they are going to end their lives.
  • Statements of worthlessness. Someone who is seriously considering suicide may say things like, “No one would care if I was gone,” or “It wouldn’t matter if I were there or not.” These indicators of worthlessness should not be ignored.

Many of these signs are easy to ignore. Everyone goes through periods of being down in the dumps, and many people are able to push through. However, not all are. When you see these signs or symptoms, listen very carefully to the person and do not minimize or downplay what they are saying or feeling. Ask open-ended questions to let the person talk out their feelings.

If you feel that the person is in danger, you can ask, “Are you feeling suicidal?” Many people fear that this will put the idea into their loved one’s head, but this is rarely the case. If someone is already thinking it, you won’t change that, and if someone is not, asking the question will not cause them to start thinking that way. It may open the door to getting the right help in place and saving your loved one’s life.

Warning Signs of Substance Abuse

In addition to knowing how to spot the signs of suicide, learning the signs of substance abuse can also help you get help when it is needed. Some physical signs that someone you love may be abusing alcohol or drugs include:

  • Changes or deterioration in physical appearance and health
  • Lack of personal grooming
  • Sudden changes in weight or appetite
  • Changes to sleep patterns
  • Changes to coordination, including slurred speech or tremors

Behavioral signs to watch for include:

  • Drug or alcohol use making it difficult to have healthy relationships
  • Legal trouble, including car accidents or frequent fighting
  • Not paying attention to home, school, or work responsibilities
  • Changes in friend groups and habits
  • Need for more money, including the desire to borrow or steal money
  • Increased tolerance for prescription medications
  • Life revolving around use o the substance
  • No longer enjoying favorite activities or hobbies

Finally, these psychological signs may indicate a substance use disorder:

  • Increase in fear or paranoia
  • Intense mood swings
  • Appearing spaced out or tired
  • Changes to personality or attitude without a cause

These behaviors can be hard to spot, so it’s important to be aware of all aspects of your loved one’s behavior. If you are noticing any of these signs in someone you care about, you need to seek professional help.

Suicide is Preventable and Substance Abuse is Treatable

If you or someone you love is struggling with substance abuse and suicidal thinking, you are not alone. Help is available. By using these resources and taking that first step to seek help, you can get the right professionals in place to allow yourself to move forward and past these concerns. Remember, suicide can be prevented and substance abuse has proven, effective treatment, so seek help now.


Medical disclaimer:

Sunshine Behavioral Health strives to help people who are facing substance abuse, addiction, mental health disorders, or a combination of these conditions. It does this by providing compassionate care and evidence-based content that addresses health, treatment, and recovery.

Licensed medical professionals review material we publish on our site. The material is not a substitute for qualified medical diagnoses, treatment, or advice. It should not be used to replace the suggestions of your personal physician or other health care professionals.

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