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Substance Abuse and Teen Suicide: What Every Parent Needs to Know

Teen laying on their side appearing passed out with a bottle of pills.

You could call them “the desperate dozen.” 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 12 people between the ages of 10 and 24 years of age commit suicide every day in the U.S. That means tens of thousands of family members each year are left grieving and wondering why someone with their whole life in front of them chose to end it all.

The reasons and circumstances for these suicides are diverse and wide-ranging. When you look at the data, some patterns begin to emerge. One of them is a recurring link between drug addiction and suicide.

Substance Abuse + Mental Illness = Higher Odds of Suicide

This correlation between suicide and drug abuse (which includes alcohol abuse) is prevalent across all age groups. CDC research indicates that with the exception of depression or other mood disorders, alcohol and drug abuse constitute the most frequently-seen risk factor for suicidal behavior. Moreover, substance abuse is more prevalent in the histories of youth and younger adults who committed suicide than older persons who took their own lives.

Another aspect of the substance abuse/suicide paradigm is the common occurrence of some type of mental illness or disorder. In fact, the National Association of Mental Illness claims that nine out of every ten successful suicides are committed by people who have experienced mental illness. Among adult drinkers, suicide ideation was discovered in those who suffered from depression.

Drugs are the Cause – and the Weapon

Not only do drugs and alcohol influence suicidal tendencies, but they also often play a role in the suicidal acts themselves. Among teens, alcohol or drugs are used to commit suicide in 30 to 50 percent of all suicidal cases. Also, studies indicate that more than a third of all women who commit suicide use drugs or alcohol to kill themselves, while just 8 percent of men do the same.

The sad irony of many teen suicides is that adolescents turn to drugs or alcohol as a way to cope with or escape from the problems they are experiencing, and many of them wind up overdosing on these substances. Contrary to popular belief, less than two percent of teen and adult suicides are committed using illicit drugs; rather, prescription medications are present in nearly three out of every four drug-related suicides.

Risk Factors and Warning Signs

While substance abuse and mental illness are two major determinants of suicide, here are some other suicide risks of which to be aware:

  • Family history of suicide
  • History of abuse or trauma
  • A recent loss or tragedy
  • Isolation from interpersonal relationships
  • A chronic or serious illness

If you are a parent who is concerned about the possibility of your teen harming himself or herself, here are some of the red flags for which to watch:

  • Substance abuse or intoxication
  • Sharp mood swings or agitation
  • Verbalized feelings of hopelessness
  • Emotional outbursts such as crying or rage
  • Sleep deprivation or excessive sleep
  • Social isolation
  • A sudden drop in school performance
  • Unexplained physical illnesses
  • Impulsiveness or recklessness

Young man pointing a gun at his lower jaw area.

What to Do

If your adolescent child exhibits these symptoms consistently for more than two weeks, seek professional help as soon as possible. A good first step is to engage in some type of therapy as a family, and then enroll your teen in one-on-one therapy if needed. A thorough physical examination by a physician may also be wise to see if there is an undiagnosed disorder. Finally, there are numerous treatment options available from inpatient rehab centers or psychiatric facilities to outpatient therapy or medication.

The most important thing is not to ignore the warning signs from your teen or write them off to everyday adolescent angst. Maintaining open and honest communication with your teen can help you spot suicidal tendencies before your son or daughter can act on them. In short, do whatever you can to keep your teen from becoming a member of the “Desperate Dozen Club.”

If your teen is abusing drugs and showing signs of suicidal tendencies, contact us for information on how to get help right away.

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