Insights from experience: alcohol and suicide

Mental Health
Photo by Nik Shuliahin on Unsplash

In this article, Sarah Marsay from Samaritans and Robin Pollard from With You talk about recent work from the Suicide Prevention Consortium to capture the views of people with lived experience of alcohol use, suicidality and/or self-harm.

There is a close, well-evidenced relationship between alcohol, suicide and self-harm. This relationship varies depending on a range of factors, including how different groups of people use alcohol. For example, heavy episodic or binge drinking is associated with increased likelihood of attempting suicide amongst adolescents, while people who are dependent on alcohol are approximately 2.5 times more likely to die by suicide than the general population. In England, nearly half of all patients under the care of mental health services who die by suicide have a history of alcohol use.

Despite these links being well researched and documented, the Suicide Prevention Consortium found the voices and perspectives of people with lived experiences were often hard to find. In 2021, the consortium launched a new project exploring the relationship between alcohol, suicide and self-harm, focusing on the perspectives of people with lived experience and putting their insights at the forefront of our work.

The complex relationship between alcohol use and mental health

From the 125 people with lived experience that completed our surveys, we heard how people had a diverse range of relationships with alcohol, and there were many different ways they viewed the link between their suicidality, self-harm or mental health.

For some people, alcohol helped them reduce their inhibitions, while for others it was a coping mechanism — usually a way of dealing with trauma. Many people were aware of why they drank, and the effect it had on them. This included both the negative impact on their mental health or mood at the time of drinking, but also the longer-term impact, often experienced days or weeks later.

“Alcohol used to take all of the bad feelings away for the moment but always left [me] sad after. Depression hits the day after I drink.”

One of the most common themes we heard was how people used alcohol to cope with other underlying issues. We also heard how support services were sometimes unprepared, unable to understand or unwilling to respond to the underlying trauma.

Alcohol as a barrier to mental health services

We heard how despite alcohol being closely linked to people’s mental health and suicidality, services they accessed struggled to treat them as such. Experiences of support services working in isolation were common. Some people said they felt afraid to disclose their alcohol use when seeking mental health support fearing they could be deemed ineligible for mental health treatment, and/or because they didn’t feel ‘safe’ to do so. Far too many people told us they couldn’t access appropriate support due to strict eligibility criteria, often at a local level, excluding people from the help they need. Their co-occurring needs around alcohol and mental health weren’t treated as a shared responsibility for different services.

However, despite these systemic problems, we did hear examples of good individual practice. Many people in our survey experienced what they felt was good care, and pointed to the expertise, empathy and compassion of individual practitioners who sought to understand their personal experiences with alcohol.

The role of alcohol in suicide is not taken seriously

One of our most concerning findings was that some people who were intoxicated at the time of a suicide attempt experienced dismissive attitudes from frontline professionals who down-played or misunderstood the seriousness of the attempt/intent and failed to offer appropriate support. The persistence of shame and stigma associated with alcohol issues was commonplace.

Read the full blog post here.

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This content was created by With You

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