Why Suicide Rates are Climbing Across the U.S.—The Link Between Suicide and Drug Use

Family at the grave.

Since 1999, statistics for suicide have increased by twenty-five percent, heralding a concerning mystery in our health condition that warrants attention. In less than two decades, suicide rates have climbed by about one to two percent every year, seemingly defying our advances in both physical and mental health. Such an increase is quite perplexing until we realize that a big part of the increase in suicide is directly linked to increasing drug use trends.

There are likely few phenomena or experiences that a family can go through that carry with them as much trauma, grief, or upset as suicide. Suicide is one of those terrible life occurrences that very abruptly ends the life of those who commit it, and which very abruptly forever changes the lives of those close to him or her.

Though suicide is easily preventable, it still remains one of the leading causes of preventable death in the U.S. And what’s more, there is still much that we do not know about suicide. For example, we are only just beginning to find that suicide and drug use has a deep but crippling connection.

Studies Indicate a Link

Several studies have explored the link between suicide, suicidal ideation, and substance abuse. One doctor, Dr. Richard Liu, Ph.D., of Brown University sought specifically to find if a connection exists between IV drug use and suicide, suicidal ideation, or planning a suicide. According to his research, there definitely is a connection.

From the study, Dr. Liu was able to frame a theory called the “Theory of Suicide.” This theory extrapolates that suicide in a young adult or teen is the result of:

  • Feeling as though they don't belong.
  • Having the capacity for suicide.
  • Experiencing a reduced fear of death.
  • Having a tolerance for pain.

Dr. Liu found that all four of the above traits were present in every case he studied where there was either suicidal ideation, a suicide attempt, or an actual suicide. What was also quite concerning was that young people who engaged in IV drug use also almost always had the above four traits as applicable to them as well.

Dr. Liu’s research project included a little over two-thousand teenagers from ages twelve to seventeen. All of the teens involved were teens who had admitted to being depressed. According to the research, eighty-two percent of them had considered suicide, forty percent had made a plan, forty-five had attempted suicide, and eighty-two percent who had a plan had also made an attempt. Of the two-thousand-plus teens surveyed, six percent of them were IV drug users. Sixty-two percent of the teens who were IV drug users had made a suicide attempt, whereas less than forty-five percent of the non-IV drug using teens had made such an attempt.

This data indicates that IV drug use increased one’s odds of attempting suicide by about thirty percent. And as there is a far cry more IV drug use occurring in the United States now than there was in 1999, it starts to make sense why suicides have gone up by twenty-five percent.

The Data Does Not Lie

Percent with Suicidal Thoughts in the Past Year among Adults Aged 18 or Older, by Past-Year Use.

According to the Center for Substance Abuse Treatment, suicide is the leading cause of death among people living with addictions. Keep in mind that, although we often think of overdoses as being the leading cause, overdoses can also be suicides. By that Is meant that overdoses can be intentional, a factor often not considered.

And when we consider alcohol abuse, the statistics get even worse. Also according to the Center for Substance Abuse Treatment, those who struggle with alcohol abuse issues are no less than ten times more likely to commit suicide than those who do not struggle with alcohol issues. Furthermore, alcohol is found to be present in thirty to forty percent of both suicides and suicide attempts.

The Oxford Academic Journal of Public Health also made some incredible headway in researching suicide and drug use, primarily by compiling and studying thousands of other research documentation on the subject. The Journal states: “We searched PubMed, Web of Science, and Scopus until May 2015. We also searched the reference lists of included studies and PsycINFO website. We identified a total of 12,413 references and included 43 studies with 870,967 participants. There was a significant association between SUD (substance use disorder) and suicidal ideation.”

The Oxford research project became so thoroughly convinced that suicide and substance abuse were related that they published hundreds of statistics and research findings on their website, all for the broad public to see and learn from.

The conclusion is that when people misuse drugs and alcohol, they simply become more likely to either take their own life or to try to. In just one year, over two-hundred thousand emergency department visits were made due to suicide attempts, all of which were drug-related. And the problem is growing. From 2004 to 2011, suicide attempts increased by about forty-one percent.

So what can be done to reduce these statistics?

Strategies for Reducing Both Suicide and Substance Abuse

Two women talking

As depressing and unpleasant as the facts, statistics, and research studies from above might be, we can all take heart in knowing that we can do our part to reduce the prevalence of suicide, suicide attempts, and suicidal ideation. A big part of this will ultimately lie in reducing the drug problem in tandem.

The first thing that we can all start doing a little bit more of is raising awareness of the prevalence of suicide, and really doing our best to make it known that yes, this is a problem, it is getting worse, and we need to, and can, do something about it.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a very simple mantra that they use when it comes down to addressing the suicide issue. The CDC says that “While the causes of suicide vary, suicide prevention strategies share two goals: to reduce factors that increase risk and to increase factors that promote resilience or coping. Prevention requires a comprehensive approach that occurs at all levels of society—from the individual, family, and community levels to the broader social environment.”

And there are other methods of addressing suicide risk too. We can create protective environments where people feel safe from harm. We can promote connectedness so people are more willing to communicate openly about their struggles. We can work harder to teach coping mechanisms and problem-solving skills. We can put more effort into identifying at-risk individuals and helping them before it is too late. We can engage in strategies that lessen harm and which prevent future risk from coming about.

The important focus here is that we do take action and that we do engage in strategies for addressing suicide. As long as the drug problem grows (another major crisis that we need to work on), the suicide problem is also going to grow. We need to take control of the situation and put more effort into reducing suicide and all of the factors that are connected to it. One thing we can be certain of is that suicide statistics will not reduce if we do nothing. By our efforts and by our efforts alone can we reduce the prevalence of this agonizing and painful occurrence.




After working in addiction treatment for several years, Ren now travels the country, studying drug trends and writing about addiction in our society. Ren is focused on using his skill as an author and counselor to promote recovery and effective solutions to the drug crisis. Connect with Ren on LinkedIn.