When someone you care about struggles with substance abuse, there are often other issues they’re dealing with at the same time. Underlying mental health problems create a relationship between suicide and substance abuse that is painful for everyone involved. Even when someone has been through treatment for substance abuse, mental health problems and the risk of suicide can linger if they don’t get help. You may not be able to make their problems go away, but you can start by understanding that relationship and how you can help.

Suicide and Substance Abuse

The link between suicide and substance abuse is complicated because there are different reasons someone may struggle with both, and these reasons may or may not include mental illness. We know that substance abuse increases the risk that someone will be suicidal. According to Psychology Today, alcoholism is the strongest predictor of suicide, not a psychiatric diagnosis. At the same time, substance abuse is often used as a way of taking one’s life, further complicating this link between the two problems.

In many cases, someone who has started abusing substances is doing so as a way to self-medicate pain that comes from depression, anxiety, or some other mental illness. Unfortunately, this leads to greater problems because substance abuse can make symptoms of depression worse and cause anxiety and hopelessness if the person tries to quit unsuccessfully.

Treating a Dual Diagnosis

Having both mental illness and substance abuse disorder is called a dual diagnosis, and if this is the situation your loved one is in, it’s essential that they get treatment for both issues. The National Institute on Drug Abuse recommends integrated treatment that addresses these diagnoses together, rather than individual treatment for each problem. This is key because each issue is intertwined with the other, and if someone gets treatment for addiction without addressing underlying mental health problems, they are at a higher risk for relapse and suicide.

How You Can Help

You may not be able to take the pain away, but you can help your loved one by understanding what they’re going through and supporting them in the ways they need.

  • Address suicidal thoughts or behaviors– If the person you care about has expressed any suicidal thoughts or actions, educate yourself on the best way to talk to them and connect them to help. Ask if they are thinking about suicide, and let them know that you are there to listen and help, but not to judge.
  • Be aware of triggers– For someone who is in recovery, stress and major life changes can be triggers for relapse and symptoms of mental illness. Your friend or family member may need extra support at these times of transition.
  • Give consistent support– Beyond the symptoms directly associated with both mental illness and substance abuse, one of the hardest things they have to manage is the shame and stigma that often go along with these issues. You can’t overcome that for them, but you can be supportive and show that there is no shame in their illness.
  • Encourage self-care – Even after receiving addiction treatment, your loved one needs ongoing mental health care. Besides getting help from a professional, encourage them to engage in self-care. Basic self-care means eating healthy and exercising to build their body and mind back up in recovery. Encourage them to start a new hobby to spend time doing something that makes them happy. Make a point to spend quality time together too because healthy relationships are key to self-care.

Substance abuse and suicide are painful, whether you’re the person suffering or you care about someone else who is. As hard as it may be, don’t hesitate to offer help. Even if the situation feels hopeless, being a supportive presence in your loved one’s life is the difference they need.

Melissa Howard, Stop Suicide | melissa@stopsuicide.info

Photo credit: Pixabay