NZ study confirms alcohol abuse link to suicide risk

Alcohol abuse or dependence has been found to significantly increase the risk of suicidal thoughts in adults, prompting calls for changes to New Zealand’s national suicide prevention strategy.

New research from the Christchurch Health and Development Study (CHDS) — the study of a birth cohort of 1265 children born in 1977 — has linked harmful drinking to a heightened risk of suicide.

Study leader and University of Otago (Christchurch) population health lecturer Dr Rose Crossin said before controlling the study data for common childhood and adult risk factor variables such as trauma, physical, mental health and substance abuse, it was found alcohol dependence almost tripled the risk of suicidal ideation.

"After controlling for these variables, suicidal ideation was still 50% higher in those with alcohol dependence."

Dr Crossin said such increased risk, observed across ethnicities and in both males and females, backed up previous international studies linking harmful drinking to suicidal thoughts.

She said alcohol use disorder was among the most consistently established risk factors for suicide and was the second-largest contributor to overall suicide rates after major depressive disorder.

Dr Crossin recommended the new findings be taken seriously in light of New Zealand’s alarming rates of hazardous drinking and suicide risk.

Ministry of Health data from 2020 showed 21% of adults met hazardous drinking criteria, while coronial data in the year to June 2021 confirmed 607 New Zealanders took their own lives.

"The World Health Organisation highlights harmful drinking as a significant contributor to suicide, yet our national suicide prevention strategy does not specifically target this risk factor and has zero alcohol-related interventions.

"This study should be further cause for alarm at government level, that strong action is now needed to reduce alcohol-related harm, notably suicidal risk, at both a population and individual level."

Dr Crossin and CHDS director Prof Joe Boden said they were awaiting publication of a follow-up study using coronial data to determine the prevalence of acute alcohol use in suicide deaths in New Zealand, as well as the characteristics of suicide involving acute alcohol use.

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