Drug and Alcohol Abuse and Its Role in Suicides

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Dozens of Prescription Pill Bottles

Drug Abuse

Drugs that are most commonly abused are:Drug abuse is the recurrent use of illegal drugs, or the misuse of prescription or over-the-counter drugs with negative consequences. The consequences involve problems at work, school, home, or in interpersonal relationships; problems with the law; and physical risks that come with using drugs in dangerous situations. People experiment with drugs for many different reasons. Some do it out of curiosity, some do it because of peer pressure, and then there are those athletes who use various drugs in an attempt to improve performance. Others use drugs to ease and drown out other problems. Anxiety and depression prescription medications fall into this category. Using drugs periodically does not automatically lead to abuse and there is no specific level at which drug use moves from casual to problematic. If your drug use is causing problems in your life at work, school, home, or in your relationships, then it is likely you have a drug abuse or addiction problem.

Marijuana (cannabis): the most commonly used illicit substance. This drug impairs short-term memory and learning, the ability to focus, and coordination. It also increases heart rate, can harm the lungs, and may increase the risk of psychosis in vulnerable people. Research suggests that when regular marijuana use begins in the teen years, addiction is more likely: one in six users, compared to one in nine users among adults. In addition, recent research suggests that heavy cannabis use that starts in the teen years is associated with declines in IQ scores in adulthood.

Prescription medications and some over-the-counter medications : increasingly being abused (used in ways other than intended or without a prescription). This practice can lead to addiction and, in some cases, overdose. Among the most disturbing aspects of this emerging trend is its prevalence among teenagers and young adults. Also disturbing is the common misconception that because these are used medically or prescribed by physicians, they are safe even when not used as intended. Commonly abused classes of prescription drugs include opioid painkillers, stimulants, and depressants.

Cocaine:  a short-acting stimulant, which can lead users to ‘binge’ – take the drug many times in a single session. Cocaine use can lead to severe medical consequences related to the heart and the respiratory, nervous, and digestive systems. Cocaine users can also experience severe paranoia, in which they lose touch with reality. The powdered form of cocaine is either inhaled through the nose (snorted), where it is absorbed through the nasal tissue, or dissolved in water and injected into the bloodstream. Crack is a form of cocaine that has been processed to make a rock crystal (also called ‘freebase cocaine’) that can be smoked. The crystal is heated to produce vapors that are absorbed into the bloodstream through the lungs. (The term ‘crack’ refers to the crackling sound produced by the rock as it is heated.)

Drug Abuse and Suicide

Suicide is a well-known risk for those suffering with mental health problems. It also requires attention in the assessment and treatment of drug addiction. Under the influence of drugs, you may lose inhibitions and take risks you ordinarily would not. Additionally, many people abuse drugs in an attempt to relieve symptoms of depression, anxiety or other mental health conditions. The rate of major depression is two to four times higher among addicts than the general population. Although drugs may seem to help in the short term, they make the problem worse over time. When attempting to stop using drugs, persons may feel overwhelmed by the return of the painful emotions that caused them to use the drugs in the first place. They may also be clear-headed enough to carry out suicidal thoughts and plans. Transitions, such as entering or leaving treatment, relapse, and death, divorce or other major life changes, can make users especially vulnerable at times. Abusing drugs, especially depressants such as sedatives, can also trigger symptoms of depression, increasing the risk of suicide. As the consequences of addiction pile up – from legal problems and damaged relationships to financial ruin and job loss – individuals may lose all hope that things can get better. For some, it seems like there are only two paths to relief: spiraling back into drug use or death.

People with substance use disorders are about six times more likely to commit suicide than the general population. Drug abuse not only increases the likelihood that a person will take his or her life, but it is also used as a means for committing suicide. Roughly one in three people who die from suicide are under the influence of drugs, typically opiates such as oxycodone or heroin. Poisoning is the third-leading cause of suicide deaths, and drugs make up 75% of suicide deaths due to poisoning.

Alcohol Abuse

Alcoholism, or alcohol dependence, is the most severe form of alcohol abuse. It is a chronic disease characterized by the consumption of alcohol at a level that interferes with physical and mental health, family and social responsibilities. An alcoholic will continue to drink despite serious health, family, or legal problems.

Alcoholism is influenced by both genetic and environmental factors. It is a chronic condition and can last throughout a person’s lifetime. It usually follows a predictable course and has recognizable symptoms.

Alcohol also affects women differently than men. Women become more impaired than men do after drinking the same amount of alcohol, even when differences in body weight are taken into account. Additionally, chronic alcohol abuse takes a heavier physical toll on women than on men. Alcohol dependence and related medical problems, such as brain, heart, and liver damage, progress more rapidly in women.

How to Identify Alcohol Addiction

  • Craving: A strong need, or compulsion, to drink
  • Loss of control: The inability to limit one’s drinking on any given occasion
  • Physical dependence: Includes evidence of tolerance and withdrawal
  • Tolerance: The need to drink greater amounts of alcohol in order to get drunk
  • Withdrawal symptoms: Nausea, vomiting, sweating, shakiness, hallucinations (visual or auditory), anxiety, and even seizures. These symptoms can occur in individuals who have been heavy drinkers over a period of time.

Side Effects of Alcohol Addiction

  • Increased incidence of cancer, particularly cancer of the larynx, esophagus, liver, and colon
  • Acute and/or chronic pancreatitis (an inflammatory disease of the pancreas)
  • Cirrhosis of the liver – alcohol abuse can cause alcoholic hepatitis, which then can lead to cirrhosis.
  • Alcoholic neuropathy or degenerative changes in the nervous system affecting nerves responsible for sensation and movement
  • High blood pressure
  • Nutritional deficiencies – vitamin B12, folate, and thiamine
  • High blood pressure
  • Erectile dysfunction
  • Cessation of menstruation
  • Fetal alcohol syndrome in the children of women who drink during pregnancy
  • Depression
  • Increased risk of suicide

Alcohol Increases the Risk of Suicide

There are a number of reasons why alcohol can increase the risk of suicide including:

Alcohol is associated with having a good time, but it actually works as a depressant. If the individual is already feeling bad when they start drinking, they will usually feel a lot worse afterwards. This further deterioration of mood can be enough to tip people over the edge.

Alcohol abuse can induce depression. Those who are depressed are far more likely to kill themselves. It is estimated that 40% of people who abuse alcohol will have depressive symptoms.

Alcohol makes people act impulsively. Suicide is often an impulsive act with no thoughts about the consequences.

Alcohol increases levels of aggression which is also closely associated with suicide.

Alcoholism leads to the deterioration in the life of the individual. It will lead to them losing friends, family, employment, and possessions. This will greatly increase the amount of stress they will have to deal with in life.

Dealing with Addiction, Abuse & its correlation to Suicide

Stigma plays a role in keeping people from getting help. Also, lack of training in suicide prevention contributes to the problem once people do seek treatment. Someone has to ask the difficult, but pertinent questions about whether the patient has ever considered or attempted suicide, and whether they currently think about committing or intend to commit suicide. Someone needs to let the person suffering from the addiction know that they are not alone, that they are cared for and that hope remains. That person needs to then collaborate with them and their loved ones to create a recovery plan that first ensures their safety, and then addresses the underlying issues. It would be prudent at this point to involve a trusted healthcare provider as he/she may be better able to understand the issues at hand. Addicts are at high risk of death by a number of causes including disease, accident and suicide. Suicide prevention requires a multifaceted approach, but it all hinges on the person reaching out for help and effective treatment being available when they take that step. Treatment and support are important precursors for recovery from substance abuse as well as recovery from suicidal thoughts.

Helping an Unwilling Addict

An alcoholic or drug addict cannot be forced to get help except under certain circumstances, such as a violent incident that results in court-ordered treatment or medical emergency. But you don’t have to wait for someone to ‘hit rock bottom’. Many alcoholism and drug dependency treatment specialists suggest the following steps to help an alcoholic or drug addict:

  • Stop all ‘cover-ups’. Family members often make excuses for or try to protect the alcoholic from the results of his or her drinking. It is important to stop covering for the alcoholic so that he or she experiences the full consequences of drinking.
  • The best time to talk about his or her drinking is shortly after an alcohol or drug related problem has occurred – a serious family argument or an accident. Choose a time when he or she is sober or clean, and when everyone involved is calm, and you have a chance to talk in private.
  • Be specific. Tell the family member that you are worried about his or her drinking or drug use. Use examples of the ways in which alcohol or drugs has caused problems, including the most recent incident.
  • State the results. Explain to the drinker what you will do if he or she doesn’t seek help. What you say may range from refusing to go with the person to any social activity where alcohol or drugs will be available, to moving out of the house. Do not make any threats you are not prepared to carry out.
  • Get help. Gather information in advance about treatment options in your community. If the person is willing to get help, call immediately for an appointment with a treatment counselor. Offer to go with the family member on the first visit to a treatment program.
  • Call a friend. If the family member still refuses to get help, ask a friend to talk with him or her using the steps just described. A friend who is a recovering addict may be particularly persuasive, but any person who is caring and non-judgmental may help. The intervention of more than one person, more than one time, is often necessary to coax him/her to seek help.
  • Find strength in numbers. With the help of a health-care professional, some families join with other relatives and friends to confront the individual as a group. This approach should only be tried under the guidance of a health-care professional experienced in group intervention.
  • Get involved in support groups once you have made any headway and the person is now on the path to recovery. It gives them a better chance of continuing on the path to full recovery.
Article Categories:
Columns · Issue 18 · Psychological · Publication

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