The truth is that there is a teenager who hasn’t felt depressed at some stage of their adolescent life.
That’s partly down to hormones, wildly changing in a short space of time. It’s also about confusion, trying to find a place in the world, trying to work out who they are, peer pressure, family, friends, studying, the future.
There is so much confusion in, and pressure on, teens, that it is little wonder that they aren’t at times confused, depressed and looking for ways to alleviate those feelings.
But what’s the actual link between substance abuse, and teenage suicide? Does a set of circumstances lead directly to substance abuse, and is there really a risk of moving from that to actual suicide?
The Statistics On Teenage Suicide
Using American statistics, available from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the following startling facts emerge:
- Suicide is the 10th highest cause of death in under 18’s.
- On average, nearly 50,000 Americans aged 10 or older to commit suicide.
- From 1999, suicide rates having increased across nearly every state.
Alongside the general statistics, the ones relating specifically to teenagers are even more concerning:
- 17% of high school students have considered suicide. This is made even worse when that percentage is made up of 22% of all females.
- Nearly 14% of students have created a detailed plan in their minds about what they would use to commit suicide with, and how they would do it.
- Nearly 10% have attempted suicide in the previous 12 months.
- Children from ethnic minorities have a rate of suicide rate 1.5 times higher than average.
What Is The Evidence That Substance Abuse & Suicide?
Wherever you look for this evidence, there will be a wide range of statistics available, and some contradictory evidence.
However, several studies suggest that suicide and suicidal behavior in adolescents is lower in areas where alcohol is more expensive, or less available. As a starting point, this shows that access to any type of drug can start to alter the outlook, thought patterns and perception of a young mind.
The problem is that the teenage brain is undeveloped. This means that a young person is more likely to become addicted, and be unable to cope with the progression of experimentation and addiction.
One key study in the USA obtain responses from 30,000 students at both public and private educational institutions.
The respondents were asked about how often the previous 12 months they had seriously thought about committing suicide, or tried to commit suicide. They were also asked how often this occurred in relation to being under the effects of alcohol or drugs.
They were also asked lifestyle questions about drug and alcohol use generally.
It’s an incredibly complex study, but it’s conclusion was that generally: “Students who drink or use drugs are more likely to have suicidal tendencies than those who do not use substances.”
Specifically as an example, 8.15% of students who met the criteria for “binge drinking” had contemplated, or attempted suicide in the previous 12 months. This compares to only 2.35% of students in exactly the same age and demographic range, who did not consume alcohol.
These statistics are also borne out by other substance abuse, not just alcohol.
Now of course there a problem with these results, in that a child who is upset is more likely to seek out alcohol or other substances to escape, which means their use is more likely to show up in any survey around outcomes.
So of course this is not the whole story, but it certainly points in a specific direction. The unprepared teenage mind, hit with the depressant results of alcohol, and the aftermath of drug use, is far more likely to be unbalanced, and anxious.
When you add in the common teenage problems of social isolation, low self-esteem, and complex relationships with family and friends into the mix, you can see why substance abuse obviously has a link to an increased chance of suicide.
Risk Factors That Can Trigger A Slide In Mental Health
There are certain risk factors which have been linked to an increased chance of teenage substance abuse, and therefore an increased chance of suicide attempts.
The risk factors for teen suicides have been arrived at through statistical surveys as follows:
- Previous suicide attempt
- Cultural/religious belief
- Family history of depression/suicide
- Abuse by a family member(s)
- Abuse by peer group
- Impulsive/aggressive tendencies
- Conditions such as ADHD
- A perception/reality of isolation
- Peer-group suicides off-line/online
- Normalization of suicide through exposure or discussion
- Personal loss (death of someone close, or someone close moving away)
- Physical illness
Warning Signs To Watch Out For
When it comes to substance abuse and adolescent suicide, although there is often a complete surprise amongst people close to that person when it happens, often there are clear warning signs that could, and should have been spotted
These signs are not the whole story. Children with illnesses, mental disorders, or other issues that are diagnosed, or undiagnosed can have a higher chance of reckless action, with disorders such as ADHD and autism being linked in this way.
But generally, the key warning signs that usually indicate that someone is at risk, are signs of substance abuse, alongside general changes:
- Withdrawing from family/peers/existing relationships
- Rejecting, or a loss of interest in, previous hobbies or pleasurable activities
- A creeping neglect in personal appearance/change in personal appearance
- Grades and attentiveness slipping at school
- Episodes of exhaustion
- A change in personality beyond the usual teenage dramas
- Changes in eating patterns/not eating
- Constantly tired, drawn-out, looking exhausted, vague and far away demeanor
- Violence towards objects, animals, or other people
- Constant illness, alongside things like headaches, fatigue, nausea
- Being defensive during every interaction, especially when questioned
- Blocking family members from social media interactions
So undeniably, a link does exist between substance abuse and higher adolescent suicide rates.
Although mental health issues, and trauma from life can affect things on top of this, many perfectly happy, healthy teenagers, can rapidly spiral downwards into suicidal thoughts, if there is ongoing substance abuse.
Part of the problem is also that once this spiral begins, family and friends don’t know how to deal with it, and may actually ignore it, and when they try to intervene, they do so in the wrong way. The first step is to acknowledge that there is a problem, and that if it’s not addressed, then it could lead to more serious issues.
After that, it’s a matter of education, and then trying to connect with the adolescent, to get them to acknowledge the problem, and allow you to help them to seek help.