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Suicide and Substance Use Disorder: Is There a Connection?


Expert Insight
By: Greg Tierney, PhD
Program Supervisor
Gateway Aurora

Suicide and Substance Use DisorderAfter depression, substance use disorders are the most common risk factors of suicide. Based on findings from psychological autopsies, 90% of those who complete suicide have one or more diagnosable psychiatric disorders at the time of death.

For those with a Substance Use Disorder, over 20% also have a diagnosed Depressive Disorder. The co-occurrence of these disorders relate to higher risk of suicide, greater functional impairment, and risk of having additional psychiatric conditions. The development and escalation of a substance use issue brings about consequences in all areas of an individual's life.

Increasingly severe use of drugs or alcohol can cause losses such as losing a job, divorce, legal and financial problems, health issues, and others. Therefore, as a substance use issue becomes more severe, the rate of diagnosable Depressive Disorders increases significantly. Of the individuals entering substance abuse treatment, 40% have a Co-occurring Depressive Disorder.

Roughly 1 in 3 people who commit suicide have substance use disorder.Those diagnosed with a Depressive Disorder and/or experiencing suicidal thoughts may increase their substance use as a method of temporarily avoiding the psychological pain caused by depression, or to suppress the shame of contemplating suicide.

This increase in substance use can produce severe physiological and psychological consequences. As an individual experiences severe withdrawal symptoms, they may be motivated to choose suicide as a means to avoid the perceived inevitable suffering. Additionally, intoxication can lead to impulsivity and/or heightened experience of negative emotions reducing an individual's resilience to distress.

Treating Co-Occurring Disorders Involving Suicide Risk

"In working with a person at risk for suicide, our goals include decreasing the likelihood of that person attempting or committing suicide, increasing the person's quality of life, and decreasing their potential for relapse" says Greg Tierney, PhD, Program Director, Gateway Aurora.

45% suicide rate among people with untreated substance abuse issues.Staff members at Gateway Treatment Centers are trained to identify risk factors of suicide, assess for risk, and manage chronic suicidal thoughts. When an individual is not in immediate risk of attempting suicide, counselors work collaboratively to help them understand the factors contributing to thoughts of suicide, gain skills to manage and/or cope with stressors, and build a crisis response plan that will allow them to effectively respond to further experiences of distress and thoughts of suicide.

"In addition to providing the best care possible, our overriding goal for the treatment of substance use and suicidal thoughts is to lessen the stigma of seeking treatment for either condition. When we can eliminate or significantly reduce the associated shame and guilt associated, people become more open discussing underlying issues, which can ultimately facilitate the effective substance abuse treatment," says Greg Tierney, PhD.