Treating the substance-abusing suicidal patient

Jack R. Cornelius, Ihsan M. Salloum, Kevin Lynch, Duncan B. Clark, J. John Manna

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

22 Scopus citations


Studies concerning the treatment of substance-abusing suicidal patients are scarce despite the frequent presence of suicidal behavior among this population. Indeed, suicidality (ideation or behavior) is generally an exclusion criterion for participation in treatment studies of subjects with alcohol or drug abuse. Consequently, to date, little is known about the optimal treatment of this population. The first study involving substance-abusing suicidal patients was an open-label trial conducted in the early 1990s. This study involved 12 patients, all of whom demonstrated recent suicidal ideations and had made a lifetime suicide attempt. The results of that open-label study demonstrated significant within-group improvement in both depressive symptoms (including suicidal ideations) and level of drinking. However, substantial residual depressive symptoms and drinking persisted at the end of the trial. Also, because no placebo control group was utilized, the authors of that study could not rule out the possibility that the apparent therapeutic effect from fluoxetine was the result of the placebo effect. To date, only one double-blind, placebo-controlled study of subjects with alcohol or substance abuse has included substantial numbers of suicidal patients. The study involved 51 subjects, of whom 20 (39%) had made a suicide attempt in the current depressive episode, 31 (61%) had made a suicide attempt in their lifetime, and 46 (90%) had reported suicidal ideations in the week before hospitalization. The results of that double-blind, placebo-controlled study suggest that fluoxetine was effective in decreasing but not eliminating both the depressive symptoms (including suicidal ideations) and the level of alcohol consumption among a study group of subjects with comorbid major depressive disorder and alcohol dependence, many of whom displayed suicidal ideations. A secondary data analysis from that study suggested that cigarette smoking is also significantly decreased by fluoxetine, but the magnitude of the decrease is limited and few of these patients totally quit smoking with fluoxetine treatment alone. Another secondary data analysis from that study suggested that marijuana smoking was also significantly decreased in a subgroup of subjects who demonstrated cannabis abuse and that the magnitude of this improvement was robust. A third secondary data analysis from that study suggested that cocaine abuse acts as a predictor of poor outcome for both depressive symptoms (including suicidality) and level of alcohol use in this population. The results of a 1-year naturalistic follow-up study involving the patients from that study suggest that the benefits of fluoxetine in decreasing depressive symptoms and level of drinking persist 1 year after entering the treatment program. To date, no other double-blind, placebo-controlled studies involving substantial numbers of substance-abusing suicidal patients have been reported to either confirm or refute these findings. Further studies are clearly warranted to evaluate the efficacy of various pharmacotherapeutic agents and various psychotherapies in the treatment of substance-abusing suicidal patients.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)78-93
Number of pages16
JournalAnnals of the New York Academy of Sciences
StatePublished - 2001
Externally publishedYes


  • Alcohol dependence
  • Antidepressants
  • Depression
  • Fluoxetine
  • Mood disorders
  • Substance abuse
  • Suicidal behavior
  • Suicide and substance abuse

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology(all)


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