Understanding the link between Substance Abuse, Addiction & Suicide


If you’re thinking about suicide, call the Samaritans helpline on 116 123 from the UK.

Substance abuse raises a person’s chances of experiencing other life-altering outcomes. Alcohol and other drugs can lead to a variety of health complications. Overdose, sickness, and legal issues are among the most serious dangers for people with substance use disorders, but there is another considerable risk that is sometimes underestimated. Often, suicide is not on the radar of drug and alcohol treatment providers or families because, for obvious reasons, they’re so focused on safety around substance use.

Despite their similarities, depression and suicidal behaviour are not the same. However, depression is the most common cause of suicidal thoughts. There’s a complex interaction between drug and alcohol abuse, mood, and suicidal thoughts and acts. We know that those with a drug or alcohol problem are far more likely to have suicidal thoughts, attempt suicide, and die by suicide. It’s impossible to say precisely how frequently substance usage plays a role in suicide; however, according to a 2009 analysis published in the Archives of Suicide Research, between 19 and 63% of suicide attempts were impacted by alcohol or other substances.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calculated that suicides accounted for 66% of violent fatalities in 2013, based on data from 17 American states. Around 18% of suicide victims were known to have had alcohol problems, and 16% had problems with other substances.

Finding a cause to live is an essential part of addiction treatment. When people feel that they have no purpose in life, they are more inclined to turn to drugs and alcohol to feel happy. They’re also more prone to think of killing themselves. The good news is that depression, suicidal ideation, and substance abuse are all treatable conditions. However, they can quickly deteriorate if not treated. Many people discover purpose and live happy and productive lives as a result of addiction treatment.

Addiction treatment centres of high quality can address substance abuse concerns and provide therapy or referrals for people who are suicidal. Suicidal thoughts should always be discussed with admission coordinators and counsellors.

What Role Does Substance Abuse Play in Suicide Risk?

Depression, anxiety, and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder are all typical co-occurring mental health conditions with substance abuse. People with mental illnesses more commonly use alcohol and other drugs, and some use them to self-medicate symptoms of their condition.

Depression and other mood disorders are also typical side effects of various drugs, and withdrawal from many of them can exacerbate the symptoms. Because they’re going through withdrawal and their brain is relearning to work correctly, some people have suicidal thoughts throughout their early recovery from addiction.

Because most efforts at recovery begin after a stressful incident, such as an arrest, a breakup, or an accident, people are at an elevated risk for suicidal thoughts during early recovery. Those occurrences are frequently coupled with guilt and shame, making suicidal thoughts more likely than depression alone.

Many people with mood disorders don’t consider or engage in suicidal behaviour. Other components, such as hopelessness, solitude, or self-hatred, have a stronger association with suicidal thinking and conduct. These feelings are frequent in conjunction with depression and other mental health issues, and addiction to alcohol or other drugs can intensify those symptoms.

When you see someone battling a severe addiction, they typically feel frustrated because they can’t manage it. Isolation is a side effect of addiction. Suicidal ideation and conduct can be fueled by a sense of failure derived from a desire to modify an individual’s behaviour but being unable to do so.

Brain Chemistry and Its Impact

Substances of abuse change the chemistry of the brain. They interfere with the brain’s pleasure and reward system, causing the brain to prioritise substances over other things that ordinarily bring satisfaction. Addiction causes a person to get obsessed with drinking or using drugs. According to research, it also induces feelings of apathy or low motivation. That is why people addicted to alcohol or drugs quit doing things they used to like.

Alcohol is known to impede normal brain processes, making drinkers more inclined to act impulsively. When people are drunk, they are more prone to act on suicidal impulses because the alcohol prevents them from thinking about the repercussions of their actions.

A significant majority of suicide attempts were likely impulsive. The suicide attempts required no more than 15 minutes to arrange before someone committed suicide. Attempts like these appear to be more common in people with drug or alcohol problems.

The Importance of Genetics

Suicidal thoughts and substance abuse may share a genetic link. According to research, genetic factors make certain people more inclined to abuse alcohol and other substances. Individuals with a family history of addiction are more likely to develop an addiction.

Genetics can also raise a person’s chances of developing major depressive illness or engaging in impulsive behaviour. A person’s chance of attempting and completing suicide is further increased if they have a family history of suicide.

Depressed mood was reported in 38% of those who died by suicide in the United States in 2021.

People with a drug or alcohol issue are more likely to have impulsive personality features. A substance use disorder may be a symptom of impulsivity, but it is not always the cause of impulsive conduct.

Some genes may raise a person’s risk of addiction or suicidal thoughts, while others may prevent them. A person with a familial history of depression and suicidal behaviour may also carry a gene that lowers their chance of drinking alcohol. As a result, their chances of committing suicide at the end of their drinking may be reduced. Overall, additional research is required before definitive genetic inferences can be drawn.

Suicide and Substance Abuse: Common Risk Factors

Suicide and substance abuse share several risk factors. A single risk factor rarely triggers suicidal thoughts. Multiple risk factors enhance a person’s chances of developing depression, abusing substances, contemplating suicide, or suffering from a mix of mental health issues.

Even after experiencing multiple risk factors, developing depression, and abusing substances, a person may not consider terminating their life.

Environmental pressures are a part of what can put someone at a higher risk of attempting suicide. However, it’s the impression that those aren’t changeable or that there are indicators of a fundamental problem that often prompts one to consider making an attempt.

Suicide exposure in the household or community is one risk factor. Several studies have found that after a community member commits suicide, teens and young adults, particularly those with prior histories of mental illness, are more likely to develop suicidal thoughts.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide was the tenth highest cause of death in the United States in 2015.

Having a family member who has engaged in suicide behaviour increases someone’s risk significantly. Having a loved one who died by suicide is a substantial risk factor for engaging in suicidal behaviours.

A previous suicide attempt is the most powerful risk factor for suicide. Even if someone has been thinking positively about the future for the previous few days or hours, if they get into a suicidal crisis, they can become overwhelmed and suicidal. Even if they appear to be thinking optimistically, someone who has attempted before is more likely to attempt again. Suicidal thoughts can be triggered by major stressors such as relapsed addiction, ending a relationship, financial difficulties, or the death of a loved one.

Identifying Suicide Risk

People who are thinking about suicide don’t always inform their friends and family. They might obfuscate the issue or bring it up sarcastically. Someone who is hooked on alcohol or other drugs may not be joking when they make jokes about ending their lives.

Aside from talking about suicide, warning signs that someone is thinking about attempting suicide include:

  • Excessive mood swings
  • Losing touch with friends or family
  • Increased substance abuse
  • Having the impression that they are a burden to others
  • Feeling suffocated and hopeless
  • Searching for Suicide Methods

Suicide warning signs are serious and should not be ignored. A person may not appear to be thinking of suicide in the near future, but a stressful event can set off a suicidal crisis. Getting help before this happens could save their lives.

Suicide Prevention and Addiction Recovery

In their interactions with a person with suicidal thoughts, friends or family members should be open, honest, and nonjudgmental. Weapons, hazardous chemicals, and substances of abuse should be removed from the person’s environment if at all possible.

Although friends and family members must provide love and support, the most important thing a person can do is contact mental health professionals.

We want loved ones to support and encourage their family members and be a part of the process of making someone feel cared about. However, keep in mind that there will be instances when they will need to request the assistance of professionals.

A suicide crisis can strike most people with substance use problems at any time.

There are several suicide prevention hotlines in the UK, and many therapists have on-call emergency numbers. Short-term fixes can keep someone safe until they can get addiction treatment and long-term mental health counselling.

A suicide crisis can strike most people with substance use disorders at any time. However, it also passes. It will pass, even if it does not appear to be so at the time. Many suicide risk management approaches are geared toward keeping someone safe in the short term. Many people report feeling better and having a chance to assess their situation. The suicidal crisis then passes.

Treating Co-Occurring Addiction and Suicidal Thoughts

Although there is little research on addiction and co-occurring suicidal thoughts, concurrent therapy for substance use disorders and depression has been shown to be helpful. Abstinence is linked to fewer experiences of depression after treatment.

Individuals should seek depression treatment if depression persists after a period of abstinence. Individuals who have suicidal thoughts are in the same scenario. After going through addiction treatment, they should continue to get mental health counselling.

Studies have looked at whether the risk of suicide decreases with addiction therapy. The likelihood of attempting suicide is lower after addiction treatment than before. However, they are far from zero. Addiction treatment is helpful, but it isn’t enough for many people to resolve suicidal thoughts.

Relapse into suicidal thinking, like a relapse into alcohol or drug addiction, can happen following therapy. Mental health requires ongoing aftercare, love, and support. It is also critical to have access to school, a job, and other future-oriented possibilities. On the other hand, friends and family members should be made aware that relapse is always a possibility.

Protective factors are critical. The difficulty with protective factors is that you don’t want people to get a false sense of security. Unfortunately, when someone becomes suicidal, they can acquire tunnel vision around suicidal thinking or planning and lose sight of protective aspects.

Suicide and substance abuse have a tangled relationship. Suicidal thoughts aren’t usually caused by alcohol or other drugs, and those who commit suicide aren’t always under the influence. However, each element might amplify the effects of the other, resulting in catastrophic outcomes.

If you’re battling addiction and have considered suicide, know that you can get help. When you’re actively addicted to alcohol or other drugs, it’s tough to imagine a life without them, but millions of individuals in the UK are in recovery. Treatment, hard work, and faith can all help you achieve sobriety.

Resources for Suicide Prevention (UK)

Individuals in distress can seek expert assistance from emergency services, suicide prevention hotlines, or online chat rooms. Several groups offer crisis services 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Friends and family members of those with suicidal thoughts can also benefit from the groups’ resources, techniques, and information.

Samaritans – for everyone

Call 116 123

Email: [email protected]

Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM)

Call 0800 58 58 58 – 5 pm to midnight every day

Visit the webchat page</a

Papyrus – for people under 35

Call 0800 068 41 41 – 9 am to midnight every day

Text 07860 039967

Email: [email protected]

Childline – for children and young people under 19

Call 0800 1111 – the number will not show up on your phone bill

SOS Silence of Suicide – for everyone

Call 0300 1020 505 – 4 pm to midnight every day

Email: [email protected]

Last Edited: February 6th, 2024
Clinically Reviewed: April 7, 2022
Compare Rehab UK | Understanding the link between Substance Abuse, Addiction & Suicide
Clinical Reviewer


BACP accredited psychotherapist with 16 years experience working in mental health specialising in psychodynamic person-centred therapies treating those with a range of mental health disorders including anxiety, depression, OCD and Addiction.