Substance Abuse & Suicide: White Paper Explores Connection
By Rebecca A. Clay
What’s one of the biggest risk factors for suicide? According to a new SAMHSA white paper, the answer is substance abuse.
“The connection between substance abuse and suicide has not been sufficiently well understood,” said Richard McKeon, Ph.D., M.P.H., Public Health Adviser for Suicide Prevention at SAMHSA’s Center for Mental Health Services. “People in both the mental health and substance abuse fields have likely had experiences that would demonstrate the connection, but I think that probably few appreciate the magnitude of the relationship between substance abuse and suicide.”
Recently released by SAMHSA’s Center for Substance Abuse Treatment (CSAT), “Substance Abuse and Suicide Prevention: Evidence and Implications: A White Paper” summarizes what’s known about the interrelationship. “The paper provides an overview of advances that have been made in the last decade,” explained Project Officer Jorielle R. Brown, Ph.D., a public health adviser in CSAT’s Co-Occurring and Homeless Activities Branch.
Calling for a public health approach to suicide prevention, the paper urges practitioners in both the mental health and substance abuse fields to use that knowledge to improve suicide prevention efforts.
“The paper underscores the need for people in the mental health field to be aware of substance abuse issues and co-occurring disorders as well as for substance abuse professionals to be aware of the risk of suicide,” said Dr. McKeon. “There needs to be increased collaboration.”
The white paper’s first section focuses on the epidemiology of suicide. In the U.S. alone, suicide kills more than 32,000 people a year. That’s the equivalent of a death by suicide every 16 minutes. In addition to the tragedy of lives lost, suicide costs the Nation almost $12 billion in lost income.
The paper’s next section offers an overview of what’s known and unknown about how substance abuse—both drugs and alcohol—affects the risk of suicide. Since the Surgeon General issued a call to action to prevent suicide in 1999, the paper notes, scientific knowledge about suicide prevention has increased dramatically.
According to the white paper, a growing body of evidence suggests that alcohol and drug abuse are second only to depression and other mood disorders when it comes to risk factors for suicide. In one study, for example, alcohol and drug abuse disorders were associated with a six-fold increase in the risk of suicide attempts. And substance abuse and mental disorders often go hand-in-hand, the paper emphasizes.
The paper ends with a call for a more integrated, public health approach to preventing suicide.
Because of cultural taboos, the paper notes, it has only been in the last decade or so that the public health field has focused its attention on suicide. With the realization that people with mental health and substance abuse disorders can recover has come the recognition that people at risk for suicide can be treated.
What’s needed, the paper argues, is an approach that targets the entire population, relies on best practices, and addresses the full range of risk factors, adding substance abuse to better-known risk factors such as mental illness and certain biological and environmental characteristics. The approach should focus on prevention just as much as diagnosis and treatment.
The paper ends with descriptions of 10 proven suicide prevention programs drawn from SAMHSA’s National Registry of Evidence-Based Programs and Practices (NREPP). It also includes a chronology of Federal suicide prevention policy, plus a list of resources available from SAMHSA, other Federal agencies, and nongovernmental organizations.
“There’s a need for a comprehensive approach if we want to reduce suicide attempts and death by suicide,” emphasized Dr. McKeon. “It’s not sufficient to rely simply on mental health treatment, since we know that the majority of those who die by suicide have never had any mental health treatment. To reduce suicide, everyone needs to be involved.”
Download a free copy of “Substance Abuse and Suicide Prevention: Evidence and Implications: A White Paper.”
Recently added to SAMHSA’s priority programs, suicide prevention efforts include the following:
- Creating resources. SAMHSA funds the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-TALK) and the Suicide Prevention Resource Center (1-800-GET-SPRC).
- Providing grants. SAMHSA has several suicide prevention grant programs, including the Campus Suicide Prevention Grants Program.
- Promoting best practices. SAMHSA’s Center for Substance Abuse Treatment is currently developing a Treatment Improvement Protocol (TIP) on substance abuse and suicide prevention for substance abuse treatment providers.
- Informing research. In 2008, SAMHSA’s National Survey on Drug Use and Health began asking respondents about suicide attempts.
Lifeline Partners with YouTube
What happens if you see a YouTube video and you think the person behind it is at risk for suicide?
To help, SAMHSA’s National Suicide Prevention Lifeline has partnered with YouTube to offer suicide prevention resources to the YouTube online community.
Lifeline content on the new YouTube Abuse and Safety Center includes information on what to do if someone on YouTube may be at risk of suicide or if someone posts harmful messages about suicide.
Also posted are the Lifeline number (1-800-273-TALK), a public service announcement, and a link to the Lifeline channel, where you can find suicide warning signs.
For more information about this partnership and about SAMHSA’s other efforts to prevent suicide, visit the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
Site Map — January/February 2009