Research study finds 22 percent of US suicides involved alcohol intoxication
PSU researchers are dissecting the darker, often fatal, side of alcohol intoxication.
A recent study led by Portland State Professor of Community Health Mark Kaplan yielded some astonishing results regarding the connection between alcohol intoxication and suicide.
The study found that alcohol intoxication was directly linked to nearly a quarter of all American suicides.
“We were able to obtain toxicology information on most suicide cases and we were able to determine based on alcohol testing that 22 percent of the suicide victims were men and women who were intoxicated at the time of their death,” Kaplan said of the study that included more than 57,000 suicides in 16 U.S. states, including Oregon. “We found that a quarter of all men and 17 percent of all women had blood alcohol intoxication above the legal intoxication level.”
Kaplan, who has taught at PSU for more than 15 years, has studied suicide for nearly two decades. He first became interested in the topic while a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley. One of his professors showed him early studies of suicides on the Golden Gate Bridge, which acted as the catalyst for Kaplan’s interest.
Along with PSU Research Associate Nathalie Huguet and five other researchers, Kaplan found that more than one-fifth of suicide victims were legally intoxicated at the time of their death. Additionally, they found the suicide rate was higher among Native Americans, military veterans, people who lived in lower-income areas and people with low education levels.
Alcohol intoxication also played a significant role in how people chose to end their lives. The higher the blood alcohol concentration, the more often suicide victims chose to use firearms. “Those who died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound were more likely to be intoxicated,” Kaplan said. “The primary method used among men are firearms, and the rates of gun use are going up among women.
“There seems to be a connection between the use of extremely violent methods and alcohol intoxication,” he added.
Huguet said she wasn’t prepared for what she found while analyzing data.
“I was personally surprised to see the alcohol level among women and also expected a higher prevalence of acutely intoxicated decedents with an alcohol problem,” she said.
“The results also seem to suggest that many suicide decedents were younger males who were intoxicated and used a firearm to end their life. It makes me wonder how much influence alcohol had for these suicide decedents. That is, would the outcome have been different if alcohol hadn’t been present?” she added.
Oregon rates in the top 10 states with the highest suicide levels. “We rank very high in suicide. I think in older men over the age 65, they have the highest suicide rate. And Oregon ranks number five in terms of older male suicide rate,” Kaplan said.
States used in the study included Oregon, Alaska, Colorado, New Jersey, New Mexico, Rhode Island and Wisconsin, among others. Research in these states also focused on alcohol controls and alcohol monopolies. Kaplan compared privatized states where people can buy alcohol anywhere against states where alcohol is only sold in specific locations.
“The question for us in preventing suicide—and this is all about preventing suicide—is, ‘If we could restrict the sales of alcohol, could we reduce the suicide rate involving acute alcohol abuse?’” Kaplan said.
PSU music sophomore Miles Ybaben believes higher emphasis on alcohol education is warranted, and that emotions and moods factor into the drinking experience.
“When you drink, it’s important to have a positive mindset. If you have a positive mindset going into drinking, then you’ll have a wonderful time. However, if you go into a drinking spell with a very somber, depressive mindset then bad things will likely happen,” Ybaben said. “It makes me feel that there needs to be better alcohol education, like in high school health classes.”
Attention to suicides on campus has increased, and Kaplan suspects that some of these suicides are related to alcohol.
“I think it’s important to recognize that suicide is the 10th leading cause of death, and as I know from talking to others, most of us know at least one person who has attempted or died by suicide. So, in many respects, everyone is at least touched by suicide,” Kaplan said. “It’s a preventable cause of death, and we’re looking at what role alcohol plays sharply before people take their lives.”
The study, titled “Acute alcohol intoxication and suicide: a gender-stratified analysis of the National Violent Death Reporting System,” was published in BMJ Group’s journal Injury Prevention. Kaplan received a grant in October 2011 from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, which helped fund the study.