Science & Research

Study finds link between suicide, substance abuse

Combination of alcohol, cocaine use correlated with dramatic increase in self-harm risk

By
Staff Writer
Thursday, April 21, 2016

University researchers recently published a paper that revealed previously unknown links between the usage of cocaine in conjunction with alcohol and increased suicide risk.

Assistant Professor of Psychiatry and Human Behavior Sarah Arias led the research. Published in the scientific journal “Crisis,” the study “provide(s) insight into the impact of substance use on future suicide attempts in various sociodemographic groups,” according to the paper.

Among the discoveries mentioned by the authors were “unexpected” interactions between alcohol and cocaine. Each drug had a low association with suicide on its own, but suicide risk jumped drastically when both were taken together, according to the paper.

Research was conducted using the Emergency Department Safety Assessment and Follow-up Evaluation, a survey conducted with multiple hospitals between 2010 and 2012. Consisting of over 800 subjects, the evaluation followed patients at risk for suicide for a full year after their initial admittance into an emergency room. This time frame allowed the researchers to delve into the complex variables at play before and after a suicide attempt.

“Before this study, it was unclear if it was even feasible to get staff to complete suicide risk screening on all patients and, if you did, whether it would actually result in identifying people who were at risk,” wrote primary investigator Edwin Boudreaux in an email to The Herald.

Through a combination of interviews, medical chart assessments and telephone calls, researchers began to develop a nuanced model of the multiple factors that led to self-harm.

Using this data, Arias and her team showed that future suicide risk was associated with a variety of different types of substance abuse. In addition to the increased risk of suicide while taking both cocaine and alcohol, they also found that risk varied along gender and racial lines.

It is “not clear-cut,” wrote Arias in an email to The Herald. “There are differential levels of risk when we consider factors such as sex or race.”

Cocaine and alcohol are known for creating an elevated high that might explain some of the relationship between their use and suicide risk, Arias wrote. But the study is only enough to establish correlation and not a direct result, she added.

Still, Arias believes that the takeaways from this paper will eventually have the ability to affect healthcare practices, especially in the emergency room. Currently, the team is collecting data for older patients at risk to develop characterization and treatment for these demographics, Arias wrote.

“The practical application would be to implement similar screening programs at other emergency departments,” Boudreaux wrote.

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