End silence about link between suicide and substance abuse

Melinda Moore
Melinda Moore

The confusion and disbelief being expressed by Chris Cornell’s family in the wake of his reported death by suicide on Wednesday is eerily familiar. The Soundgarden frontman had seemingly everything to live for. It makes no sense to them.

As a clinician who works frequently with suicide-bereaved family members, I know that suicide may undermine everything we know about a family member and our sense of safety within the family. Left unexamined, it may also confer risk of depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation for those who are significantly impacted by the death.

“We know that suicide has prolonged effects on families. Unfortunately, the impact of suicide is not exclusive to families. People who felt close to Soundgarden’s music may be devastated and feel grief in similar ways to some family members,” said my colleague, University of Kentucky researcher and American Association of Suicidology president Julie Cerel.

In other words, the effects could be broader and more difficult to track in order to prevent further harmful effects.

Another wrinkle in trying to prevent further suicide is the increasing awareness that heroin is involved in many suicide deaths. CNN recently reported from Lexington, highlighting children being abandoned by heroin use and death.

Kentucky and West Virginia have some of the highest rates of drug abuse overdose deaths in the country. Both states saw a double digit percentage increase in the overdose death rate between 2014 and 2015. Suicide death by heroin may play a role.

Among the approximately 35 percent of suicide deaths in Kentucky on which toxicology screens are run opioids are present 49 percent of the time. In the period from 2005 to 2014, that represents 1,474 deaths from a sample of 3,005 deaths, according to data from the Kentucky Violent Death Reporting System.

The collateral damage done to family and friends from exposure to these deaths is serious and the epidemic of heroin takes on a new and dangerous color. Cerel’s research suggests that 25 individuals seriously impacted by each suicide death may need intervention or services themselves.

The silence is deafening around the intersection of suicide and substance abuse. It seems to be unplowed ground, which is changing, thanks to suicide prevention expertise in Kentucky, caring public policy makers, law enforcement, and invested communities.

The federally funded Eastern Kentucky University Suicide Awareness and Focus on Education grant is providing leadership on this front. EKU SAFE is hosting “After the Heroin,” a public forum on May 23 highlighting both intentional and unintentional death by heroin with emphasis on how to help those left behind as way of preventing further death.

Clinicians need to be informed about how they can help both those struggling with substance abuse and those who have been affected by a death. Usually, experts in Public policy and public health, along with law enforcement, shoulder much of this responsibility. We must be talking more and coordinating efforts to help. This may be a place to start.

Melinda Moore is an assistant professor of psychology at Eastern Kentucky University and principal investigator of the Eastern Kentucky University Suicide Awareness and Focus on Education grant.

If you want to go: ‘After the Heroin’ forum will be held Tuesday, May 23 10 a.m. to noon in the Combs Grise Room at Eastern Kentucky University. For more information, contact Judy van de Venne at judy.vandevenne@eku.edu.