Whether it’s at your sibling’s wedding or happy hour at the local pub, drinking is a pretty common pastime in American life. When handled responsibly, it can be a way to relax in social situations, celebrate with loved ones, and even decompress after a long day at work. When it’s abused, though, it can be dangerous — drinking can change the way you think and see the world, and it’s not always for the better.
People abuse alcohol for all kinds of reasons — financial woes, relationship problems, and trouble at work all tend to be big contributors — and in many different ways. Abuse isn’t always synonymous with alcoholism; even on the weekends is considered abuse. But drinking isn’t the best way to cope with problems, and can even make them appear so massive that ending it all seems like the only way out. In fact, alcohol is a factor in over a quarter of all suicides in the United States and more than a third of suicide victims used alcohol just prior to death.
Comorbidity: How Alcohol Abuse and Suicidal Thoughts Fuel Each Other
An important part of overcoming both alcohol abuse and suicidal thoughts is to understand the way alcohol affects your brain, and how that in turn causes a comorbidity effect. This means that not only are the two conditions present at the same time, but that they can directly affect each other. In this instance the physical effect alcohol has on the brain in addition to the psychological role it can play can have dire effects on feelings of depression, which can lead to suicidal thoughts.
Alcohol has the ability to slow the pace of communication between neurotransmitters in the brain. Disruptions in this balance can trigger mood or behavioral changes including depression, agitation, and memory loss. Even a single instance of heavy consumption can throw neurotransmitters off-course.
There are certain sections of the brain particularly susceptible to alcohol’s effects. Damage to the cerebellum can affect cognitive functions like memory and emotional response. The limbic system can also be vulnerable, causing problems with emotion. Finally, heavy alcohol consumption can affect the cerebral cortex, which affects a person’s abilities to think, plan, behave intelligently, and interact socially.
All of these effects can cause dramatic psychological effects. Alcohol lowers inhibitions and increases impulsivity. For many this simply means getting on-stage at karaoke night or approaching an attractive stranger.
However, because it also increases negative self-image and lowers self-esteem, it can deepen feelings of depression and social isolation. This can lead to especially dangerous behavior in someone already feeling depressed. Alcohol tends to foster all-or-nothing thinking and lower one’s concern for the future consequences of present actions, which may partly explain why suicide is 120 times more prevalent among adult alcoholics than the general population.
Dangers of Drinking While Depressed
What makes heavy drinking especially dangerous for those struggling with depression is the combination of heightened emotions and impulsivity mixed with increased feelings of aggression. Impulsivity and aggression are strongly implicated in suicidal behavior. When someone who’s been feeling depressed indulges in a night of binge drinking, the amplified feelings of isolation and sadness can become too great to bear. It can be difficult to reach out and ask for help, especially if your depression has convinced you that all is lost and you have no one to turn to.
A person may not even intend to actually end his life, only make a desperate cry for help that he may not otherwise have felt “strong” enough to express. But because he’s under the influence, things could end up going further than he intended.
On the other end, depression can certainly cause someone to develop an alcohol abuse problem. It could be a beer after work turning into three, then becoming a nightly ritual. Problems at home could cause you to turn to alcohol as a way to cope, but often ends up only making things worse. Psychological addiction is a slippery slope: when so many other things in your life seem to be going awry, alcohol becomes a familiar friend. It can seem like the only constant in a world of uncertainty and unwanted changes. Even when it begins to cause problems in someone’s life, the mental dependency can cause him to continue using anyway.
Further, psychological dependency often creates enough of a habit that someone becomes physically addicted as well, making it even more difficult to cut back.
Overcoming Both Problems
It’s worth noting that you should never write off suicidal thoughts as a minor occurrence. Having them even once, sober or not, should be a major warning sign of something bigger going on. If you start to have them, it’s important to address them immediately. Your life is too important to take for granted; if it seems like it’s at risk even for a moment, don’t hesitate to reach out for help.
First of all, know that having these kinds of thoughts doesn’t make you any weaker, flawed, or less capable than anyone else. Part of what makes suicidal thoughts so difficult to overcome is the feeling that you are alone in how you feel, that no one could understand your struggle since those around you don’t appear to be having as much trouble. Unfortunately, there tends to be a taboo against suicide that makes it difficult for people to talk about. Don’t let that deter you from reaching out; your loved ones would likely be more upset to find out you were struggling and didn’t come to them than to feel uncomfortable discussing a very real struggle.
Confide in someone you know well and trust, but acknowledge that they may not be prepared for it. Their reaction may not initially be perfect, but the important thing is that someone becomes aware of what you’re feeling. Once they’ve had a little time to hear you out, they’ll likely be able to understand more. Even if they don’t understand completely, they should be able to realize that you’re going through more than they realized and need a shoulder to lean on. That’s a feeling that just about anyone can relate to. Further, it will say a lot that you trusted them enough to come to them. Be sure that you mention the role you feel alcohol may play; you’ll need someone’s support in changing your habits.
The fact is you can’t confront one problem without addressing the other. Even if you don’t think your alcohol abuse is playing a major role, cut back anyway — at the very least it isn’t helping you. Channel your energy into other hobbies and activities. It may be difficult to come up with ideas, especially if many of your extracurricular activities usually involve alcohol, so make a list: write down things you enjoy doing, things you’re good at, things that give you a sense of accomplishment, and things that you’ve always been interested in pursuing but never had the time or opportunity for. Keeping yourself busy can be an important part of your recovery.
Getting Professional Help
Getting professional help might be the best route, but it can be a difficult step to take. You can start by going to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings as a way to start small; keeping your anonymity can be a good way to ease yourself into the process without fear of judgment. It can also be a good way to reassure yourself that there are many others who have dealt with these kinds of issues — there’s comfort in knowing that others have not only faced your struggle, but have found ways to overcome it.
If professional help or rehabilitation seems like the right path, be sure to find the right kind of center or treatment for you. It may help to first consult a counselor who can help diagnose your depression and any other underlying mental health conditions that contribute to your suicidal thoughts and alcohol abuse. If you’re nervous about going alone, ask a loved one (likely the one you originally confided in) to go with you. The important thing is that you find your way there, so don’t hesitate to ask for support on your journey.
Overcoming your alcohol abuse and suicidal thoughts may be the most difficult task of your life, but in the end you’ll come out a stronger person. Find a strong support system to help you along the way, and never be afraid to ask for help even after treatment. You don’t have to face it alone, so don’t shut others out even if you fear they won’t understand. More than anything, your loved ones will want you to lead a healthy, happy life, and would be honored to be a part of the process to getting there.
- MedicineNET — Medical Definition of Alcohol abuse
- DrugFree.org — Almost One-Fourth of Suicide Victims Are Legally Intoxicated When They Die
- National Institute On Drug Abuse — Common Comorbidities with Substance Use Disorders
- National Institute On Drug Abuse — Seeking Drug buse Treatment: Know What To Ask
- Montgomery County Emergency Service, Inc. — Facts About Alcohol & Suicide
- QJM: An International Journal of Medicine — Alcohol consumption and suicide
- DARA Thailand — Binge Drinking Increases Suicide Risk
- DARA Thailand — Physical and Psychological Addiction