The Alcohol Connection

A large study published this year found significant results related to heavy alcohol use and male suicide risk. Among men, those who died by suicide experienced an 8% increase in heavy alcohol use at the onset of the recent recession than did men in a non-suicide comparison group, whose alcohol use decreased by 2%.


UCLA Social Welfare professor Mark Kaplan’s research, released in July 2016, underscores the connection between substance abuse, addiction and suicide.


Kaplan’s work studies the links of economic downturns and increased suicide risk in the United States, and examines alcohol as a missing factor from previous research. A struggling economy has been long known to increase the risks of suicide, and the role alcohol use plays in that relationship may be pivotal.


These findings help improve suicide prevention efforts, underscoring the importance of being aware of alcohol availability and use during times when a friend or loved one is exhibiting risk factors or warning signs – going through a difficult time, appearing depressed or hopeless, or exhibiting significant increase in alcohol use.


Kaplan and colleagues used data from the U.S. National Violent Death Reporting System from 16 participating states, and then data from the Behavior Risk Factors Surveillance System for the same states to compile the non-suicide comparison group.  Blood-alcohol levels in those dying by suicide were compared to heavy alcohol use in the non-suicide comparison group in the years before (2005-07), during (2008-09), and after the recession (2010-11).


While recessions see declines in overall alcohol consumption, they conversely see increases in heavy alcohol use, particularly among those most affected by economic downturns. The study indicates that the percentage of men dying by suicide who were intoxicated at the time of death increased during the recession.


The same was not true for women. As opposed to women, alcohol use increased among men dying by suicide beyond what was observed in the general population, indicating acute alcohol use as a strong risk factor for suicide among men during times of severe economic hardship. In women, level of alcohol use at the onset of the recession, and after, did not deviate between women who died by suicide and the general population.


It is theorized that alcohol plays such a strong role due to its negative effects on decision-making, causing compromised thinking and often leading to impulsive behavior. Because of this, the emphasis on acute alcohol use is of high importance in these results, as Kaplan states there is evidence that individuals intoxicated at the time of death by suicide did not necessarily have a history of alcohol abuse.


This confirms earlier findings in Kaplan’s research published in 2014, in which he found that one-third of all suicides in the United States involve acute use of alcohol before the fatal attempt — nearly 36 percent of men and 28 percent of women who died by suicide – but less than half demonstrated a past history of alcohol abuse or difficulties. Those who did have a history of drinking exhibited a tendency to drink heavily in the hour before attempting.


In the earlier study nearly a quarter of those under the age of 21 who died by suicide tested positive for alcohol at the time of death. A blood alcohol content at or above the legal intoxication limit posed a high risk for suicide across the lifespan. High levels of alcohol consumption were associated with the methods of suicide most likely to be fatal, such as gunshot and suffocation.


The most recent study released in July 2016, “Heavy Alcohol Use Among Suicide Decedents Relative to a Nonsuicide Comparison Group: Gender Specific Effects of Economic Contraction,” was funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and published in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research.