Double Trouble: Substance Use and Mental Health

May 8 through May 14 is National Prevention Week, which focuses on different aspects of substance abuse and mental health. Wednesday, May 11’s theme is Preventing Suicide: Everyone Plays a Role. Mental health and substance use disorders affect people from all walks of life and all age groups. These illnesses are common, recurrent, and often serious, but they are treatable, and many people do recover. Mental disorders involve changes in thinking, mood, and/or behavior. These disorders can affect how we relate to others and make choices. Reaching a level that can be formally diagnosed often depends on a reduction in a person’s ability to function as a result of the disorder (SAMHSA).

For example:

  • Serious mental illness is defined by someone over 18 having (within the past year) a diagnosable mental, behavior, or emotional disorder that causes serious functional impairment that substantially interferes with or limits one or more major life activities.
  • For people under the age of 18, the term “Serious Emotional Disturbance” refers to a diagnosable mental, behavioral, or emotional disorder in the past year, which resulted in functional impairment that substantially interferes with or limits the child’s role or functioning in family, school, or community activities.
  • Substance use disorders occur when the recurrent use of alcohol and/or drugs causes clinically significant impairment, including health problems, disability, and failure to meet major responsibilities at work, school, or home.

The abuse of alcohol or drugs is second to depression as the most frequent risk factor for suicidal behavior. The risks increase if substance use disorder (SUD) co-occurs with depression (major depressive disorder) or other mental health disorders such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Anxiety Disorder, Bipolar Disorder, Schizophrenia, and some personality disorders. Those who experience depression, or these other disorders often turn to drugs or alcohol as coping measures which can sometimes evolve into SUD.

Alcohol and some drugs can lead to suicidality through loss of inhibition, impulsivity, and impaired judgement. SUD can also lead to changes in the brain that result in depression over time, and can be disruptive to relationships—causing isolation and a loss of social connection. Furthermore, they can be a means to ease the distress associated with carrying out the act of suicide.

Risk Factors for Suicide

Risk factors are factors that can increase the possibility of someone making the decision of taking their own life. There are several risk factors that can lead to suicide.

These risk factors include:

  • Substance use disorder that coincide with other disorder such as: Depression, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Anxiety Disorder, and Some Personality Disorders.
  • Substance Use Disorder
  • Stressful life events
  • Chronic pain
  • Living alone
  • Lack of social support
  • History of childhood abuse
  • High aggression/impulsivity
  • Feelings of hopelessness
  • Sexual orientation or gender identity
  • History of suicidal behavior

Protective Factors for Suicide

There are some individual characteristics and things we can do in communities that may help protect people from suicidal thoughts and behavior. There is not as much research about these protective factors as there is about risk factors but identifying and understanding them is especially important. These protective factors include:

  • Identifying reasons for living.
  • Being clean and sober.
  • Coping and problem-solving skills.
  • Connections to friends, family, and community support.
  • Limited access to lethal means.
  • Availability of physical and mental health care.
  • Having a trusting relationship with counsellors, physicians, and other service providers.
  • Employment.
  • Religious attendance/ and or internalized spiritual teachings against suicide.
  • Attendance to SUD support groups.
  • Optimistic perspective on life.

Demographics – Special Populations


A key risk factor that often underlies suicidal and substance use behaviors is poor impulse control. Adolescent substance use may increase the risk for suicidal behavior due to both acute and long-term effects. Stressful life events, both traumatic and interpersonal, are shown to contribute to suicide risk in adolescents. Additionally, nearly 52% of NYS students in grades 7-12 reported their parents had never talked to them about the dangers of underage drinking. If you know your child is using alcohol, drugs, or tobacco, you have good reason to be concerned. You may feel helpless, fearful and even ashamed, but you CAN do something. Contact the Allegany Council on Alcoholism and Substance Abuse for help at 585-593-6738 or call HOPENY at 1-877-846-7369.

Sex and Gender Differences

Men are more likely than women to use almost all types of illicit drugs, and illicit drug use is more likely to result in emergency department visits or overdose deaths for men than for women. “Illicit” refers to use of illegal drugs, including marijuana (according to federal law) and misuse of prescription drugs. For most age groups, men have higher rates of use or dependence on illicit drugs and alcohol than do women. However, women are just as likely as men to develop a substance use disorder. In addition, women may be more susceptible to craving and relapse, which are key phases of the addiction cycle.

Middle Aged Males

Middle-age and older men that are dependent on alcohol and have mood disorders are at an elevated risk of suicide. Instead of talking about stress or trying to seek help for their depression men will often mask their stress and deal with their depression through harmful behaviors and actions. Depression is a common risk factor that might turn into other dangerous behaviors such as, denial of illness, and reliance of self-medicating strategies.

65 and older

While illicit drug use typically declines after young adulthood, nearly 1 million adults aged 65 and older live with a substance use disorder (SUD), as reported in 2018 data. Physical risk factors for substance use disorders in older adults can include chronic pain; physical disabilities or reduced mobility; transitions in living or care situations; loss of loved ones; forced retirement or change in income; poor health status; chronic illness; and taking a lot of medicines and supplements. Psychiatric risk factors include avoidance coping style; history of substance use disorders; previous or current mental illness; and feeling socially isolated.

How YOU can support Mental Health for All:

Mental health is essential to everyone’s overall health and well-being, and substance misuse can affect anyone. Whether for a brief period of time or a chronic problem, While 1 in 5 people will experience a mental illness during their lifetime, everyone faces challenges in life that can impact their mental health.

To ensure mental health for all and prevent suicide, we need your help to reduce stigma, build awareness, and support those at-risk for suicide. You have the strength and power to reach out and save a life. Knowledge, awareness, advocacy, and empathy are the tools you may already have.

Recovery is possible. There is not a criteria that you check off and then all of a sudden you are considered “recovered”. Recovery looks different for everyone, and progress is measured differently. Recovery is a winding road, with twists and turns and possible pitfalls here and there – and that is okay. Be kind to yourself and to others, accept and learn from your mistakes or lapses. Celebrate progress, whether it is yours or a loved ones.

Together We Can Prevent Suicide… Prevention Works!


  • If your life or someone you know is in imminent danger, CALL 911.
  • Offer help and support; listen.
  • Assess the environment for your safety and theirs – Remove any objects that may be used for harm.
  • Stay with the person until assistance arrives.
  • For additional help call:
    • Allegany County Crisis Hotline at 1-888-448-3367.
    • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (5233).
    • Text the word “hello” to the Crisis Text Line at 741741.


Join the Allegany County Suicide Prevention Coalition at any of our upcoming workshops; including SafeTalk, Talk Saves Lives, ASIST (Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training), and Youth Mental Health First Aid, or share your time and support as a member of the Coalition.

Are you a survivor of suicide loss? We can help connect you to local support groups.

To learn more, like us on Facebook at Allegany County Suicide Prevention Coalition or call Jose Soto at 585-610-9765.

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