independent advocate reducing alcohol harm

Alcohol, suicide and mental health

Alcohol can contribute to the development of mental health problems as well as exacerbating pre-existing mental health difficulties. It can affect our ability to cope, manage and to overcome everyday stresses and significant life events, such as unemployment or bereavement.

In Ireland, where alcohol consumption levels are high and binge drinking is commonplace, alcohol is a factor in more than half of all completed suicides and over one third of cases of deliberate self-harm.

Alcohol can reduce inhibitions enough for an individual to act on suicidal thoughts which they might never have done if not under the influence of alcohol. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has estimated that the risk of suicide when a person is currently abusing alcohol is eight times greater than if they were not abusing alcohol. Suicide is the leading cause of death among young Irish men aged 15 to 24.

The My World Survey captured the views of almost 14,500 young Irish people, making it the first national and most comprehensive study of youth mental health for those aged 12-25 years in Ireland. It found that:

  • Approximately 48% of sixth years at second level and over 60% of young adults reported drinking behaviour outside of the normal range.
  • Excessive drinking has very negative consequences for the mental health and adjustment of young people.
  • For all young people, depression and anxiety were significantly higher when a young person engaged in harmful drinking or was classified as possibly alcohol-dependent.
  • There is clear evidence that excessive use of alcohol is associated with poor mental health and well-being.
  • For young adults, strong links were found between excessive drinking and suicidal behaviour.

For information on alcohol’s impact on a young person’s mental health and development, visit

Alcohol’s role as a serious risk factor in mental health difficulties, including suicide, self-harm and depression, was examined by expert speakers at a conference held in November 2013 by Alcohol Action Ireland.

The research presented at that conference showed that:

  • The more teenagers drink the more likely they are to express anxiety and depressive symptoms.
  • Drinking in adolescence hampers the acquisition of healthy coping skills required for independent, adult life.
  • Alcohol is a factor in more than half of completed suicides in Ireland and over one third of episodes of deliberate self-harm.
  • Alcohol is associated with increasing self-harm and suicide among both men and women.
  • Alcohol contributes to increasing rates of self-harm and it causes increased self-harm at specific times in the year, such as a peak of self-harm in July and August. This peak would not exist if alcohol were not involved.
  • Alcohol is associated with increasing trends in highly lethal methods of self-harm, in particular among men.
  • There is a consistent pattern of peaks of self-harm (50 or more self-harm presentations to hospital) on public holidays or the day after, such as January 1, March 17 and 18, and June 5.
  • Reducing Irish adolescents’ heavy drinking should reduce their rate of deliberate self-harm by at least 17%.
  • Among men aged 40 years and older who had died by suicide, the majority (76.5%) had a history of alcohol abuse.
  • In Northern Ireland, 70% of under-25s known to psychiatric services who later took their own lives had a drinking problem.

In the video below, Dr Bobby Smyth talks about current trends in alcohol consumption among young people in Ireland and the impact their drinking is having on their mental health. He gave the presentation at Alcohol Action Ireland’s conference “Facing ‘The Fear’: Alcohol and Mental Health in Ireland”.

Dr Bobby Smyth: Adolescent drinking in our intoxicated State from Alcohol Action Ireland on Vimeo.

Watch all the videos from the “Facing ‘The Fear’: Alcohol and Mental Health in Ireland” conference here.

The 2014 annual report of the National Self-Harm Registry found that alcohol was involved in 35% of all cases. Alcohol was significantly more often involved in male episodes of self-harm than female episodes (37% and 33%, respectively).

In line with previous years, misuse or abuse of alcohol was one of the factors associated with the higher rate of self-harm presentations on Sundays, Mondays and public holidays, around the hours
of midnight.

The report said that the findings underline the need for continued efforts to:

  • Enhance health service capacity at specific times and to increase awareness of the negative effects of alcohol misuse and abuse, such as increased depressive feelings and reduced self-control.
  • Intensify national strategies to increase awareness of the risks involved in the use and misuse of alcohol, starting at pre-adolescent age and intensify national strategies to reduce access to alcohol and drugs.
  • Educate self-harm patients and their families about the importance of reduced use of and access to alcohol.
  • Arrange active consultation and collaboration between the mental health services and addiction treatment services in the best interest of patients who present with dual diagnosis (psychiatric disorder and alcohol/drug abuse).

The second Suicide Support and Information Support (SSIS) report presents the results of the on-going implementation of the SSIS and information on 307 consecutive cases of suicide in Cork City and County between September 2008 and June 2012.

The presence of alcohol and/or drug abuse was known for 173 cases, which was confirmed for 60.7%. Among these, 48.6% had abused alcohol, 21% had abused drugs and 27.6% had abused both alcohol and drugs.

  • Risk factors more strongly associated with suicide among men aged >40 years included history of alcohol abuse (76.5%), physical illness (38.3%) and diagnosis of depression (31.5%).
  • Alcohol and drug abuse was more common among those unemployed (51.6%) compared to those employed (18.4%).
  • Alcohol and/or drug abuse was higher among those with a self-harm history (50.0%) than those without (34.8%).
  • Alcohol and/or drug abuse was higher among those without depression (47.2%) compared to those with depression (34.1%).

Further research and reports on alcohol and suicide or alcohol and mental health.