In much of the world, alcohol is a regular and accepted part of celebrations, sporting events, and meals. Often, we think of alcohol as a normal part of life. However, drinking alcohol is extremely dangerous for anyone experiencing suicidal thoughts. Substance use is strongly correlated with suicidal behaviors, especially among adolescents. Alcohol can cause shifts in mood, ranging from euphoria to hopelessness. Alcohol also lowers inhibitions and may increase impulsivity, which makes it especially lethal since a person who is intoxicated may be more likely to act on impulses (such as attempting suicide) than a person who is sober.
In fact, at least half of all suicides are accompanied by alcohol use. One study estimated that every drink consumed increases risk of suicide attempt by 30% and found that up to 35% of all suicide attempts are attributable to acute alcohol use. This means that if a person is feeling distressed, having just one drink makes them nearly three times more likely to attempt suicide. Clearly, alcohol and suicidal thoughts don’t mix well.
This is especially concerning because many young adults experience depression, anxiety, and/or suicidal thoughts just at the time when they are likely to begin using alcohol. 29% of high school students and 39% of college students reported symptoms of depression within the past year. Meanwhile, approximately 60% of high school students4 and 77% of college students5 report that they have used alcohol in their lifetimes. Where these groups overlap can be deadly.
So what can we do? There are very good reasons to limit one’s alcohol intake and regularly pay attention to whether you or a friend is exhibiting problematic drinking behaviors. People with substance abuse disorders are much more likely to attempt suicide than those who do not suffer from addiction. Also, when you act as a gatekeeper and look for warning signs of distress or suicidal thoughts, keep drinking in mind as well. Sudden changes in substance use or ongoing substance abuse are warning signs of suicide. People with substance use disorders may use substances to cope with underlying mental health issues, or they may develop mental health issues from their use of substances. Professionals can help treat patients with dual diagnoses of mental health and substance abuse concerns.
If you know someone who is intoxicated and seems depressed or starts talking about suicide or exhibiting warning signs while drinking, take them seriously. Even if you don’t believe this person would feel suicidal while sober, they are at high risk while intoxicated. A distressed, intoxicated person should be treated like a distressed sober person—ask them direct questions, stay by their side, and seek professional help—while keeping yourself safe in the process. For more information about how to help someone in distress, visit nineoutoften.org.
If you see that a person is exhibiting warning signs of suicide, try to help them avoid alcohol while they seek professional help. Adding drinking—even moderate social drinking—to other warning signs of suicide can be lethal. And most importantly, never offer alcohol or suggest going out for drinks as a way to help someone who is in crisis. Drinking is not only a negative coping mechanism that can exacerbate depression and other mental health problems, but it can increase impulsivity and make the person more likely to act on suicidal thoughts.
 Gart R, Kelly S. How Illegal Drug Use, Alcohol Use, Tobacco Use, and Depressive Symptoms Affect Adolescent Suicidal Ideation: A Secondary Analysis of the 2011 Youth Risk Behavior Survey. Issues Ment Health Nurs. 2015;36(8):614-20. doi: 10.3109/01612840.2015.1015697.
 Cherpitel CJ, Borges LG, Wilcox HC. Acute alcohol use and suicidal behavior: A review of the literature. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research. 2004;28:185–285. http://dx.doi.org/10.1097/01.ALC.0000127411.61634.14
 Borges G, Orozco R, Rafful C, Miller E, Breslau J. Suicidality, ethnicity and immigration in the USA. Psychol Med. 2012;42(6):1175-84. doi: 10.1017/S0033291711002340.
 Kann, L., McManus, T., Harris, W., et al. Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance—United States, 2015. MMWR Surveillance Summary 2016;65(6). cdc.gov/healthyyouth/data/yrbs
 American College Health Association. American College Health Association-National College Health Assessment II: Undergraduate Student Reference Group Data Report Fall 2016. Hanover, MD: American College Health Association; 2017. acha-ncha.org
 Kolodny, A. The Risky Business of Risky Drinking. Huffington Post. 2014 (16 Sept.). huffingtonpost.com/andrew-kolodny-md/the-risky-business-of-ris_b_5822896.html
Concerned about your or someone else’s drinking? Check out this self-screening quiz.
Need help with your or someone else’s drinking? Call the SAMHSA Treatment Referral Helpline 24/7: 1-800-662-4357
If you or someone you know needs help, visit the Jordan Porco Foundation’s resources page.
The opinions expressed in this blog are personal, and not those of the Jordan Porco Foundation. The information in this blog post is provided for general informational purposes only and should not be construed as mental health advice from the individual author or the Jordan Porco Foundation. You should consult a mental health professional for advice regarding your individual situation.