A lethal combination: Protect youth from the impact of substance use on suicide

We hear a lot about mental health concerns and the risk of suicide for our youth. We hear less about increased suicidal risk from alcohol and drug use on stressed and depressed young psyches.

It is distressing and significant that clinical studies show a consistent link and shared risk factors between youth at risk for suicide and substance misuse, which is the second leading cause of suicide after depression and other mood disorders, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

By lowering inhibitions, increasing impulsivity, and providing a lethal method - whether intentional or accidental - we face a public health threat to our young, aggravated by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Increased mental health concerns, substance use and addiction impacts have emerged, and some will persist post-pandemic. We have all been stressed enormously.

These concerns did not originate with the pandemic, however. They just got worse. For example, suicide was already the third leading cause of death for those aged 10-24 in Illinois and the second leading cause nationally, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

Another alarming example is the self-reported depression rates among DuPage County teens - pre-COVID - at double the national average, according to data collected by the 2020 Illinois Youth Survey administered in Illinois schools. The IYS data also showed that 16 percent of 10th-graders and 13 percent of 12th-graders seriously considered attempting suicide in the previous 12 months.

Unfortunately, adolescence can be a perfect storm. Just as young people and their brains are growing and developing, they may also be experimenting or actively using mood-altering substances. In addition, this is a time of life when the potential for suicidal tendencies - thoughts, gestures, attempts and completions - can emerge for some.

It's more critical than ever that we protect and help the young people in our lives who may not know how to express their concerns, are afraid or ashamed, or don't want to burden us. The more aware and alert we are to their signs of struggle and the earlier we intervene, the better chance they have for a healthy, happy and long life.

As a member of the DuPage County Prevention Leadership Team (, I believe in and have witnessed how public health initiatives like the Prevention Leadership Team proactively serve the well-being of our communities and its youth.

An extension of the DuPage County Health Department, the Prevention Leadership Team is a coalition of committed community leaders working in multiple sectors (health care, education, government, law enforcement, media, youth-serving civic organizations) to prevent substance use and increase mental wellness among DuPage County youth, 18 years and younger.

The Crisis Text Line (text REACH to 741 741) is just one example of how the Prevention Leadership Team collaborates with nonprofit partners to sponsor a confidential 24/7 service to those in crisis. Learn more at

Individually and collectively, we need to help young people learn how to navigate life and its challenges without leaning on drugs and alcohol socially and to self-medicate, which only compounds and complicates existing mental illness symptoms and conditions.

Most important is to check in with those closest to us regularly and open up an ongoing conversation on their mental health and wellness. Ask directly if you fear they are contemplating suicide. Though you may feel awkward at first and some things may be hard to hear, you can never go wrong by expressing your care, concern and desire to keep them safe. (Consult the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention's RealConvo guides at for helpful tips.)

Let them know, "It's OK to not be OK." Listen to understand without judgment, empathize with their pain, help where you can, and call on professional health care support when needed. When you fear for their immediate safety from suicide or overdose, call 911 or go directly to the nearest emergency room.

Practice proactive prevention by removing easy access in the home to potential weapons and substances: alcohol, drugs, and prescription meds, safely disposing of those no longer needed through an Rx Drop Box program at Help them plan for safety in a crisis using smartphone apps like "Safety Plan" on Apple and Google Play, and "Beyond Now" on Google Play, or find templates online.

This is how we prevent tragedy and prepare for a brighter future.

• Sarah Breithaupt, MSEd, LCPC, is director of Youth & Family Services for Lisle Township and member of the DuPage County Prevention Leadership Team.

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