Almost 24 million Americans are addicted to drugs or alcohol, many of whom are parents or guardians to one or more children. When a child experiences substance abuse in a household, it can have a devastating impact both physically and mentally. As such, their risk of suicide is higher than those who did not grow up in such a household. Additionally, other damaging childhood experiences also tend to increase the risk of suicide, including divorce or breakup of the parents and family unit.

Substance Abuse in the Household and Impact on Suicide

It is well known that substance abuse can have a devastating impact on an addict’s mental and physical health. What some people don’t consider, however, is how addiction affects a family. Children who grow up in the household of a substance abuser frequently face complicated and confusing emotional (and sometimes even physical) issues. Children of substance abusers often:

  • Blame themselves for a parent’s addiction;
  • Live in an unpredictable environment;
  • Lack communication skills;
  • Witness violence;
  • Withdraw socially from friends or family;
  • Experience physical trauma (such as abuse or neglect);
  • Lack needed structure; and
  • Experience feelings of worry or anxiety about their parent.

Some children try to overachieve in an effort to earn the love or attention of an addicted parent. These children may think that being an exemplary child will help their parent stop abusing drugs or alcohol.

Other children act out as a result of their unpredictable household. With these behaviors, children are often just reaching out for help the only way they know how. Unfortunately, many never learn the proper coping or communication skills they need to get support.

If left unresolved, these issues can lead to feelings of:

  • Anxiety;
  • Helplessness;
  • Isolation;
  • Confusion; or
  • Hopelessness.

Frequently, these feelings follow children into their adult years. Some children of addicts even develop problems including feelings of depression, blame and other mis-emotion, or stress risk, anger, and resentment toward one or both parents.

Sadly, these mental health issues and their associated feelings can lead to suicidal thoughts and behaviors. But the lack of proper nurturing isn’t the only reason that children of substance abusers develop these issues. Sometimes, genetics play a role. Children can inherit certain traits, and the unstable environment can even unlock a predisposition to a mental disorder. These factors can also increase the risk of suicide amongst adult children of substance abusers.

It is also important to note that children of substance abusers can develop addictions themselves. Whether children turn to drugs and alcohol as a coping mechanism or a way of self-medicating for existing disorders, abuse can lead to suicide. Specifically, an underlying cause of substance abuse may be depression, this can lead to suicidal ideations. Additionally, substance abuse, especially if developed at a young age, can lead to changes in brain development, which can also lead to mental health issues and suicidal thoughts and behaviors.

In fact, in a recent study published in the Journal of Orthopsychiatry, researchers found that of participants who had attempted suicide, nearly 50 percent of them had a parent who abused drugs or alcohol. This means that children of substance abusers are approximately 85 percent more likely to attempt suicide than children who grew up in a household without an addict.

Divorce, Substance Abuse, and the Risk of Suicide

In the same study referenced above, researchers also looked into the impact of divorce on the risk of suicide. They found that the suicide rate amongst adult children who came from homes of divorced parents was approximately 9 percent. This may be unsurprising, as a negative major life event is a known risk factor of suicide.

Researchers then studied the suicide risk of adult children who came from households that experienced both substance abuse and divorce. Notably, they found that the addition of divorce to a substance abusing home did not increase the risk of suicide for adult children. In other words, when parents were both divorced and addicted, the rate of suicide was about the same for children whose parents only experienced addiction. At this point, researchers could only guess at the reasoning behind the lack of increase. These predictions included:

  • Removal of substance-abusing parent from household was a positive impact on mental health of children; and
  • Children already assume that a divorce may occur due to substance abuse issues.

Substance abuse, divorce, and suicide can have a devastating impact on a family. If you or a loved one are experiencing these issues, don’t hesitate to reach out for help either from a trusted therapist or counselor or by seeking out resources online.

Sarah Lockwood is a concerned parent and former social worker. Having worked with the public for decades and after watching her own daughter struggle with addiction, Sarah knows all too well the devastation that can be caused by drug and alcohol abuse. Sarah’s daughter is now in recovery, but her experiences with substance abuse inspired Sarah to get involved with She plans to spread awareness and support through her work for others dealing with addiction. While Sarah devotes a lot of time to the Coalition, she makes sure to relax and enjoy the small things in life, as every day is a gift.