One-third of all completed suicides involve heavy use of alcohol before the attempt, according to a new study by researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).
The research is the first to compare alcohol use among victims of suicide with a nationally representative survey of non-suicidal adults in the United States.
The study, published in the journal Annals of Epidemiology, was designed to calculate the risk of suicide in relation to drinking and heavy drinking. The researchers say the findings suggest the importance of linking suicide prevention programs with alcohol-control strategies.
According to the study, alcohol was detected in nearly 36 percent of men and 28 percent of women who committed suicide. Also, having a blood alcohol content level at or above .08 grams per deciliter — considered legally intoxicated in many states — was a strong risk factor for suicide for all ages.
Furthermore, people who committed suicide were four to 20 times more likely than others to have engaged in heavy drinking at some point in their lives. High levels of alcohol consumption were also associated with choosing the most lethal methods of suicide — such as shooting and hanging.
“The key finding is that the data showed alcohol misuse is common among people who are suicidal,” said study leader and UCLA social welfare professor Dr. Mark Kaplan.
“Those who drank, drank heavily in the hour before taking their lives. Fewer than half of those who were alcohol positive at the time of death had a history of alcohol-related problems.”
Blood alcohol levels were similar among both men and women who committed suicide — this was surprising, since men in general are more likely than women to drink and drink heavily.
According to the report, one possible explanation for this is that women are more likely than men to commit suicide by poisoning themselves, and alcohol may be used as one of the poisoning agents in combination with other substances.
Nearly a quarter of all those who committed suicide under the age of 21 tested positive for alcohol at the time of death.
The researchers offer several recommendations for health professionals and policy makers, in particular for addressing the connection between heavy drinking and suicide among the underage population, including:
- using social media to explain the connection between alcohol abuse and the risk of suicide, and asking school personnel to help teach that information;
- increasing access to alcohol abuse treatment programs;
- enhancing the enforcement of restrictions on access to alcohol for minors;
- educating parents about the risk of keeping alcohol in the home, especially if it’s not locked in cabinets.
The findings should encourage suicide prevention workers to probe for alcohol intoxication when helping people who are suicidal, noted Kaplan.