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Addiction, Substance Use & Suicide Awareness

Preventing Suicide for People with Substance Use Health Issues

Mother comforts her daughter
Mother comforts her daughter
Crystal Walker Headshot

Crystal Walker

Communications Director at Centre for Suicide Prevention

Robert Olson Headshot

Robert Olson

Research Librarian at Centre for Suicide Prevention

September marks both National Recovery Month and World Suicide Prevention Day (September 10), a time to reflect on lives lost to suicide and substance use and bring awareness to how the two are connected and how suicide can be prevented.

People use substances for several reasons. For example, some use substances to cope with unbearable physical and/or psychological pain caused by trauma, mental illnesses (possibly undiagnosed), and/or physical health issues. This is called “self-medicating,” and it can cause a substance use disorder.

When someone has both a substance use disorder and another mental illness, they become more vulnerable to suicide. Understanding the connection between suicide and substance use can help you recognize some of the warning signs, including:

  • Talking about suicide
  • Statements that indicate hopelessness or being a burden
  • Increased substance use
  • Lack of purpose in life or evident reason for living
  • Withdrawal from friends and family
  • Uncontrolled rage, anger, irritability
  • Recklessness and risk-taking behaviour

If someone you know is showing warning signs, there are ways to help. Consider these methods:

Have an open conversation

Open, non-judgmental conversations can help others feel understood, supported and less alone. Begin the conversation by mentioning your concerns, e.g. “I’ve noticed you’ve been drinking more than usual and driving drunk… that’s not like you. Are you okay?” Listen to their response for expressions of hopelessness or sadness and avoid offering solutions. If the person has immediate plans to die, contact Talk Suicide or 911 and ensure they are not left alone.

Connect them to mental health resources

Suggest a help line for the person to speak with a trained responder. You can even offer to make the call with them to show your support. Resources are available for free all day, every day, from Talk Suicide at 1-833-456-4566 or the Hope for Wellness Help Line at 1-855-242-3310 for Indigenous people across Canada. These help lines offer a safe space for the person to share their thoughts and can work with them to create a safety plan. Non-urgent mental health help is also available through Wellness Together at 1-866-585-0445, a service from the Government of Canada. You can also call your local CMHA to find mental health resources in your community.

Create a safety plan

Work with the individual to create a safety plan. A safety plan can help guide a person when they are experiencing thoughts of suicide and reduce the intense state of crisis they are experiencing.

Offer to be their support person

Substance use disorder can disrupt relationships, causing a person to become isolated from their supports and lose their social connections. Offering to be their support person can help them feel less alone. Make sure they know the best ways to reach you.

Often, suicidal behaviours and substance use disorder are treated separately. However, people who are experiencing both need treatment for both. Realizing how the two go hand in hand can help a person get the help they need, and ultimately prevent suicide.

This article was written in collaboration with the Centre for Suicide Prevention, a branch of the Canadian Mental Health Association.

Robert Olson, Research Librarian at Centre for Suicide Prevention Crystal Walker, Communications Director at Centre for Suicide Prevention

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