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The Link Between Substance Abuse and Suicide in Teens

2 min read · 5 sections

Teen Suicide in America

Suicide is an increasing problem in the United States. It is the tenth leading cause of death overall, claiming the lives of over 47,000 people.1 Shockingly, suicide is the second leading cause of death among adolescents aged 10 to 24 years old.1 According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 17.2% of high school students had seriously contemplated suicide in 2017 (up from 13.8% in 2009) while 7.4% of students had attempted suicide.2 The Trust for America’s Health reports that suicide rates almost doubled in youth aged 17 years and younger during the past 10 years and that it more than tripled in girls aged 10 to 14.3

Substance Abuse and Suicide

A combination of various individual and social factors contributes to the risk of suicide. Specific risk factors for suicide include:4

  • Mental health disorders
  • Physical pain
  • Substance use
  • Family history of suicide
  • Relationship problems
  • Job or financial problems
  • Cultural and religious beliefs
  • Previous suicide attempts
  • The presence of firearms in the home

Mental health disorders are the most important risk factor for suicide. Almost half of all suicides involve someone with a diagnosed mental health problem.5 Individuals with substance abuse problems are particularly susceptible to suicide and suicide attempts. In fact, suicide is a leading cause of death among people who misuse alcohol and drugs.6 Toxicology tests on suicide victims indicate the presence of substances that include:5

  • 75% of suicides involve one or more substances
  • 69% of suicides involve alcohol intoxication
  • 33% of suicides involve benzodiazepines
  • 30% of suicide deaths involve opiates (including heroin and prescription painkillers)
  • 21% of suicides involve marijuana
  • 6% of suicides involve cocaine
  • 3% of suicides involve amphetamines

The sad truth is that although many people with suicidal thoughts resort to drugs and alcohol to escape from their emotional pain, these substances end up producing the opposite effect. Not only is the intensity of their depression is increased, but the inhibitions that may be keeping them from carrying out suicide are also removed. This can tragically result in impulsive behaviors that lead to increased suicidal ideation and the carrying out of suicide plans.

Teen Substance Abuse

Substance abuse among teenagers is a major issue in the United States, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Important findings pertaining to teens from their 2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health include:7

  • 916,00 adolescents aged 12-17 reported a substance use disorder (including either alcohol or drugs). This comes out to approximately 1 in 27 adolescents
  • About 1 in 7 young adults aged 18-25 had a substance use disorder
  • An estimated 401,000 adolescents aged 12-17 had a past year alcohol use disorder while around 1 in 10 reported consuming alcohol in the past month
  • 90% of adolescents consume alcohol via binge drinking
  • 681,000 adolescents aged 12-17 had a past year illicit drug use disorder
  • About 2% of adolescents aged 12-17 had a marijuana use disorder in the past year

Substance Abuse and Suicide in Teens

In addition to an increased risk of overdose, substance abuse during adolescence can adversely affect physical and mental health, academic performance, and relationships. Many studies have shown that adolescent substance is a major risk factor for suicide.8-9 The contribution of substance use to suicidal behavior does not differ between genders, although the manner in which adolescents use substances can impact suicidal risk among the teenage population. For example, a recent study revealed that teens who are depressed and who also inject drugs are at a greater risk for suicidal behavior.10

Treatment Options

The most effective treatment for dual diagnosis is integrated intervention, when a person receives care for both their diagnosed mental illness and substance abuse. Although treatments are personalized and will not be the same for everyone, common methods used as part of the treatment plan include detoxification, inpatient rehabilitation, supportive housing, psychotherapy, medications, and support groups.

If you or a loved one is struggling with an addiction and co-occurring mental illness (commonly referred to as co-occurring disorders or dual diagnosis) and have considered ending your life, know that recovery is possible. Seeking help from addiction specialists can help you change your life and forge a better future.


  1. National Institute of Mental Health. (2019). Statistics: Suicide.
  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2018). Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance-United States, 2017. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report Surveillance Summaries, 67(8), 1-114.
  3. The Trust for America’s Health and the Well Being Trust. (2018). Pain in the Nation: Education Brief.
  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2018). Suicide: Risk and Protective Factors.
  5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2018). Surveillance for Violent Deaths—National Violent Death Reporting System, 18 States, 2014. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, 67(2), 1-36.
  6. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration. (2016). Substance Use and Suicide: A Nexus Requiring a Public Health Approach.
  7. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2019). Key Substance Use and Mental Health Indicators in the United States: Results from the 2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health.
  8. Wolitzky-Taylor, K.B., Ruggiero, K.J., McCart, M.R., Smith, D.W., Hanson, R.F., Resnick, H.S., …& Kilpatrick, D.G. (2010). Has adolescent suicidality decreased in the United States? Data from two national samples of adolescents interviewed in 1995 and 2005. Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology, 39(1), 64-76.
  9. Wang P.W., & Yen, C.F. (2017). Adolescent substance use behavior and suicidal behavior for boys and girls: a cross-sectional study by latent analysis approach. BMC Psychiatry, 17(1), 392.
  10. Liu, R.T., Case, B.G., Spirito, A. (2014). Injection drug use is associated with suicide attempts but not suicide ideation or plans in a sample of adolescents with depressive symptoms.  Journal of Psychiatric Research, 56, 65-71.


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