Shocking link between alcohol and suicide found

Researchers behind a major new study looking at links between acute alcohol use and suicide have...
Researchers behind a major new study looking at links between acute alcohol use and suicide have called for legislative and harm reduction policy change. Photo: Getty Images
More than a quarter of suicides in New Zealand involve acute alcohol use.

The stark findings of a University of Otago, Christchurch study highlight that of the 4658 suicides of those aged 15 and over between July 2007 and December 2020, 1238 (26.6 per cent) involved heavy alcohol intake.

And those involved in the study have called for the level of acute alcohol-related deaths - defined as a blood alcohol concentration of greater than 50 milligrams per 100 millilitres of blood (the legal driving limit for adults) - to lead to changes to both the Sale and Supply of Liquor Act, as well as New Zealand's approach to suicide prevention.

Lead author author Dr Rose Crossin – from the University of Otago, Christchurch's Department of Population Health – said the findings were alarming.

That included how New Zealand's rate of suicide deaths involving alcohol was 7 per cent higher than the World Health Organisation's global estimate of 19 per cent.

She said they should also result in a Government-level response.

"Our findings make for grim reading," Crossin said.

"It's abundantly clear we have a major public health problem in Aotearoa New Zealand with alcohol use now established as a significant risk factor for suicide in this country.

"Action is now urgently needed to acknowledge the problem and remedy the immense harm being caused."

The study – which was published today in the New Zealand Medical Journal - is believed to be the first time coronial data has been used in this country to quantify the link between suicide deaths and acute alcohol use across the population.

Co-author Professor Joe Boden, from the University of Otago, Christchurch's Department of Psychological Medicine, said given the results, steps to reduce alcohol harm should be made to New Zealand's national Suicide Prevention Strategy.

"The fact New Zealand's national Suicide Prevention Strategy fails to specifically target alcohol is a major missed opportunity for suicide prevention efforts," Boden said.

"These findings make it clear that specific interventions focusing on reducing alcohol harm are both sorely and urgently needed. This must include taking action to amend the 2012 Sale and Supply of Alcohol Act."

The study, using data from the National Coronial Information System, showed there was no difference of association between acute alcohol use and suicide in males and females.

The association between acute alcohol use and suicide was higher for those aged 15-54, with a lower association in older age groups.

Māori (32.3 per cent) and Pasifika peoples (35.3 per cent) recorded higher proportions of suicides involving acute alcohol use than European (25.4 per cent) and Asian ethnicities (11.9 per cent).

Despite numerous educational campaigns and repeated legislative changes, the proportion of suicide deaths involving alcohol has remained consistent since 2007.

As of June 2021, New Zealand's suicide rate was 11.6 per 100,000 population. And other studies have show 20 per cent of the population aged over 15 say they drink to hazardous levels.

Boden said the potential link between high alcohol intake and negative thoughts could be devastating.

"Being acutely affected by alcohol increases a person's risk of suicide, as alcohol use results in disinhibition, impulsivity, impaired decision making, aggression and increased feelings of despair," he said.

The study authors believe this indicates a need for further research into female alcohol use and suicidal behaviour, in order to develop culturally appropriate, responsive interventions.

Last month, Green Party MP Chlöe Swarbrick's Members' Bill aimed at minimising alcohol harm was drawn from the members' ballot.

The Sale and Supply of Alcohol (Harm Minimisation) Amendment Bill was added to the Members' ballot in July 2021.

If the bill became law, the days of alcohol-sponsored sports events could be numbered.

The bill also aims to abolish appeals on local alcohol policies, returning power to communities to decide how many liquor stores can operate in their area.

In a column published by the Herald last week, she wrote alcohol was the "drug that's the leading cause of preventable death and morbidity, globally" and in New Zealand.

She wrote it had been estimated to the harm it causes cost our country $7.85 billion a year.

The MP has also openly challenged the alcohol industry and lobbyists to publicly debate the harm that she believes alcohol is creating in New Zealand.

"I want to debate them on television, I want to debate them on radio, I will debate them in print, I'll debate them anywhere. There's nowhere left to hide really.

"The evidence is clear that alcohol causes harm like any given drug. And if we are to seriously, as a mature nation, deal with that harm, then we have to do it with evidence."


If it is an emergency and you or someone else is at risk, call 111.

For counselling and support

Lifeline: Call 0800 543 354 or text 4357 (HELP)

Suicide Crisis Helpline: Call 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO)

Need to talk? Call or text 1737

Depression helpline: Call 0800 111 757 or text 4202

For children and young people

Youthline: Call 0800 376 633 or text 234

What's Up: Call 0800 942 8787 (11am to 11pm) or webchat (11am to 10.30pm)

The Lowdown: Text 5626 or webchat

For help with specific issues

Alcohol and Drug Helpline: Call 0800 787 797

Anxiety Helpline: Call 0800 269 4389 (0800 ANXIETY)

OutLine: Call 0800 688 5463 (0800 OUTLINE) (6pm-9pm)

Safe to talk (sexual harm): Call 0800 044 334 or text 4334

All services are free and available 24/7 unless otherwise specified.

For more information and support, talk to your local doctor, hauora, community mental health team, or counselling service. The Mental Health Foundation has more helplines and service contacts on its website.