While alcohol use disorders and suicide are topics often avoided due to their sensitivity and difficulty to encapsulate in words, they are everpresent in the lives of millions of Americans. Suicide alone accounted for over 47,000 deaths in 2017 alone, and is ranked overall as the 10th leading cause of death among Americans. But, adding context to this issue brings it more clearly into focus; suicide is the second leading cause of death among those aged 10-34. Some of the youngest of us are at the highest risk for ending their own lives. And, looking at those suffering from alcohol use disorders, the population of victims soars. The NIAAA estimates that 16 million americans have AUD. With such numbers being direct victims, it’s inarguable that we can ignore these challenges.
While anyone from any background, gender, ethnicity, or culture can suffer from either or both suicidal tendencies and alcohol use disorder, we know that a higher rate of men suffer than women. In 2017 alone, men were 3.54 times – not percent, but multiplied – more likely to die by suicide than women. Men are also almost 2 times more likely to have AUD. Because of this reality, many treatment methods have been created by and, perhaps subconsciously, for men. Until recently, we have operated under the assumption that alcohol use, long term, impacts all genders in the same way. But now we know that we were wrong. By being less efficient at metabolizing alcohol, women suffer the negative consequences of alcohol abuse more quickly and with a lower volume of alcohol than men. When we take AUD into account in terms of death by suicide, then, what does the gender gap look like? In line with the new research showing that women are physiologically more susceptible to the effects of AUD, we may hypothesize that the same would occur psychologically. But, the question remains. By how much?
Without taking into account the impact of AUD, men are 293.75% more likely to die by suicide. When we look at alcohol-attributable suicides, however, we see that enormous gap shrink to only 55.24%. This suggests that while the rate amongst men still remains higher, excessive alcohol use creates a greater impact on death via suicide amongst women.
Our current culture is one that is both acknowledging women drinking – and drinking more- while simultaneously encouraging the behavior. While the awareness might create an openness for women to discuss AUD and recognize harmful patterns in their own drinking, the encouragement to drink more dwarfs this silver lining.
The necessary response, I believe, is clear; gender and culture-sensitive AUD treatment methods and programs must be developed and made available to all those suffering. It would be an irresponsible and cruel act to divert all of our energy and resources to studying and treating AUD in women, leaving men behind. The next steps should be ones of equity as we continue to uncover the many variables that can affect one’s risk of suicide.