Alcoholism and Suicide

The risk factors increase dramatically for alcoholics

Suicide is often described as “a permanent solution to a temporary problem.” For chronic alcoholics, whose brain cells cry out day and night for alcohol, suicide may seem like the only solution to a permanent problem. 

Some grim statistics

There were 8,974 alcohol-related deaths registered in the UK in 2020, equivalent to 14.0 deaths per 100,000 people. This was 1,409 more deaths (an 18.6% increase) than in 2019, with 7,565 registered deaths – 11.8 deaths per 100,000 people.

There is a strong association between alcohol misuse (chronic or acute) and suicidal thoughts, suicide attempts, and death from suicide. The risk of suicide is eight times more when someone is abusing alcohol. Alcohol lowers a person’s inhibitions, and they often act on suicidal thoughts. 

The lifetime risk for death by suicide among alcoholics exceeds 15 per cent, while the suicide rate in the general population is less than 1 per cent. Because alcohol is a mind-altering drug, anyone who drinks alcohol is at high risk for suicide – as many as 70 per cent of men and 40 per cent of women who attempt suicide have blood alcohol concentrations exceeding the legal limit. An estimated 40 per cent of all alcoholics attempt suicide at least once.

Suicide risk after recovery

The risk of suicide does not disappear with sobriety. According to one estimate, suicide is also the cause of death for an estimated 25 per cent of treated alcoholics. The addicted brain requires months and often years of abstinence, nutritional therapy, and tender loving care to recover from the extensive damage caused by chronic alcoholism. When cravings for alcohol return, which they invariable will often occur at unexpected times; when the guilt and shame associated with the label “alcoholic’ overwhelm the recovering alcoholic’s vulnerable defences; when memories of embarrassing behaviour are recalled, or when depression, anxiety, and fear linger on, suicide may once again seem like the only way out.

Chronic depression and suicidal thoughts are directly a consequence of alcohol’s widespread disruption of brain chemistry. Ealy psychological theories held that alcoholics suffer from severe anxiety and depression that predates and contribute to heavy drinking. But numerous recent studies and established that this is not true for most alcoholics. Although many drinking alcoholics are anxious, depressed, and paranoid, their psychological problems are most likely caused by the toxic effects of alcohol on the brain. In several studies, researchers reported that in 90 to 95 per cent of men and women given general supportive care, which may include participation in twelve-step groups, the depression, anxiety, and paranoia disappeared with abstinence. 

Image by Dan Meyers from Unsplash

The multiple damages caused by alcohol

To understand why alcohol causes anxiety, depression, paranoia, and general emotional instability, all of which can lead to suicidal tendencies, we need to look at the dramatic effects alcohol has on neurotransmitters and other brain chemicals:

  • Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that promotes feelings of well-being, induces sleep, and reduces aggression and compulsive behaviours. Chronic alcohol ingestion drains the brain’s supply of serotonin.
  • Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that increases the feeling of well-being, alertness, and sexual excitement and reduces compulsive behaviours. Chronic alcohol ingestion minimises the amount of dopamine in the brain.
  • GABA is an inhibitory neurotransmitter that reduces anxiety, elevates the pain threshold, lowers the heart rate and blood pressure, and reduces the risk of convulsions during withdrawal. Heavy prolonged drinking modifies the GABA receptors: when alcohol is withdrawn, the receptors can be no longer able to inhibit brain signalling. This can cause intense feelings of anxiety.
  • Opioid peptides, including endorphins, function as natural opiates to balance emotions, stimulate feelings of well-being, and increase the pain threshold. Chronic alcohol intake leads to the deceased activity of the natural opioids.
  • DNA and RNA are proteins that oversee the construction of amino acids, the building blogs of neurotransmitters and enzymes. Alcohol disrupts the formation of DNA and RNA proteins, leading to abnormalities and deficiencies in neurotransmitters.
  • Cofactors allow enzymes to function correctly. Many vitamins function as cofactors. Chronic alcohol consumptions block the absorption of numerous vitamins and minerals, leading to widespread nutritional deficiencies. This impacts the brain adversely, leading to complications. 

Though heavy drinking can be viewed as a “slow death”, the sudden decision to “end it all” is a tragic consequence of alcoholism. 

If you or a loved one is struggling with an addiction, call Freephone 0800 140 4044

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