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Alcohol and suicide

How often as you sip a cool, crisp Chardonnay or savour the peppery flavours of a bold Shiraz do you think about the effect that alcohol has on the brain? I suspect most people would answer the same as me – “not too often”.

Alcohol has a well-established place in our social lives. We share it during good times with family and friends; we celebrate special days; we toast our success.

But for some alcohol consumption is taken to excess and has far reaching effects from which one cannot return. For this group of people alcohol can become a crutch, a catalyst and a destroyer.

The link between alcohol and suicide is well established but its precise role is ambiguous. Alcohol in itself does not cause suicide. The majority of people who consume alcohol will never attempt to take their own life. Yet alcohol abuse and particular patterns of alcohol consumption and behaviours may have direct and indirect causal links with an increased risk of suicide.

Alcohol is a depressant. Its first action is to depress the inhibitory section of the brain resulting in relaxed and outgoing behaviours. As consumption increases the depressant action on the brain extends to other control centres. In a few people this can act as a tipping point for pre-existing suicide risk factors.

Long-term chronic use of alcohol can lead to physical health problems, family breakdown and social isolation; factors which can increase a person’s risk of suicide.

What needs to be done to lower alcohol consumption in support of suicide prevention initiatives?

  1. All people need to adhere to the NHMRC guidelines on alcohol consumption
  2. Maintain good physical health through regular exercise and sound nutrition
  3. Provide support and remain connected to anyone you know who has a mental disorder.

The last point is critical because connectedness and a sense of self-worth are both important positive factors in preventing suicide.

Here I talk about alcohol risk and suicide. There are in fact many other risk factors.

Discover more about suicide prevention from sector leaders at the National Suicide Prevention Conference in Melbourne on the 24 – 26 July.

If you or someone you know may be at risk, Lifeline can help 13 11 14?

Photo: courtesy of EJMPhoto

Sue Murray

Sue Murray

Sue’s background in education and health promotion has underpinned a career spanning more than 25 years in the community sector leading programs in education, media, communications and fundraising.

After 10 years leading the National Breast Cancer Foundation, Sue built on her experience to establish the George Foundation for Global Health and is now leading Suicide Prevention Australia.

1 comment

  • This is a generally excellent article. I am however concerned by the NHMRC’s Guideline 2 re alcohol consumption, which states that ‘for healthy men and women, drinking no more than four standard drinks on a single occasion reduces the risk of alcohol-related injury arising from that occasion’.

    It is very troubling that the guideline says that four drinks ‘reduces’ the risk when that number of drinks would place most people over the legal drink driving limit. Also, a person who tries to comply with the guideline by having no more than four drinks might underestimate or misunderstand the amount of alcohol in each drink, or miscount the number of drinks, and end up having the equivalent of six or seven standard drinks, which is clearly dangerous.

    Further, the guideline makes no attempt to take account of critical factors such as bodyweight and composition or the time over which the alcohol is consumed, or any other relevant factor. In my view it is downright crazy to suggest that if an average sized woman, let alone a smaller person, had four drinks on an occasion they would be at ‘reduced’ risk – on the contrary, their BAC would likely be well over 0.1.

    The NHMRC attempts to justify the guideline on the flimsy basis that there is evidence that the greatest increase in risk occurs after the fifth drink. However no matter how much such evidence there is about this, there is no convincing reason why this factor should be chosen as indicating what number of drinks ‘reduces’ the risk.

    The NHMRC says that because men take more risks than women that is a reason not to distinguish between the sexes in the guideline despite the heavier weight of men, but that is only a very imprecise generalisation and in any event women under the influence of alcohol are probably at greater risk of being assaulted than men.

    One drink increases risk, and there is no number of drinks which ‘reduces’ the risk. That’s just basic common sense and a guideline which flies in the face of common sense is not a good one. A proper public health guideline on alcohol consumption would recommend no more than one drink on a single occasion.

    There would be complaints about that of course and I know there are issues about choosing a guideline that is likely to influence behaviour rather than be ignored, however the current guideline is dangerous and sends a very confusing message in light of messaging about the number of drinks which can be consumed before driving and the timeframe over which they can be consumed (and those messages are themselves confusing). A simple message of no more than one standard drink a day would be better, safer, and less confusing.

    The NHMRC needs to revisit its guideline. I am concerned about the uncritical acceptance or promotion of NHMRC guidelines, particularly as NHMRC guidelines on other topics have been amended after it emerged that the guidelines were inadequate, asbestos comes to mind.

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