Relapse and Suicide

World Suicide Prevention Day is coming up on Sept 10th. If you have been in recovery for a while chances are you’ve known someone who has committed suicide while on a relapse. In fact, it’s not unusual to have been touched by suicide even before coming into recovery. A life spent in both active addiction and recovery carries within it a lot of tragedy and grief. There’s usually a body count.

We know that drugs kill yet I have seen many people protect their own recovery by avoiding friends who have relapsed. They may reach out once or twice but when the friend doesn’t get clean right away, they get cut off. I’m not suggesting that people in recovery need to open their lives up to the level of drama an active addict can bring into it but I do think it’s important to open up a discussion around what we can do for our suffering friends. The loneliness, hopelessness and self-hate may be what bring them back into recovery but it may also be a level of pain (especially after having lost substantial clean time) that makes the idea of suicide an option to them.

I’ve had several friends commit suicide while they were on relapses. One had tried getting clean repeatedly and had burned out most of his friends by the time he killed himself. He’d been a popular well-liked guy and the funeral was attended by at least a hundred recovering addicts. His closest friends were racked with guilt for having cut him off but believed it was the only way they could maintain personal sanity. The question on everyone’s lips was “What could we have done?”

It’s important to have boundaries, especially with people who are in active addiction. No one wants someone showing up at the door unannounced, constantly being asked for money, or having to live in fear of break-ins and theft. But we can’t forget the loneliness and hopelessness of active addiction. Small acts of kindness go a long way – and it can be done without surrendering your safety or sanity. A regular phone call, dropping by with some sandwiches, offering to accompany them to detox or a 12-step meeting can be done with support from other recovering addicts. By showing unconditional love they’ll know they can come to you when they’re ready to get clean. It requires a level of commitment to be consistent with contact – whether daily, once a week, or you divide it up among friends. It’s important that the person on a relapse knows they can call you to talk about anything without being judged. But remember, when it comes to thoughts of suicide, many addicts hold them secret. They may never confide these thoughts to you because their experience has taught them they will be judged for having suicidal feelings. Look online or contact a local suicide prevention center and ask if they have an information card that you can give to someone you are worried about. It’s okay to hand this to your friend and say “I don’t know if you would ever tell me if you feel like killing yourself but keep this card if these thoughts ever come up”. Also tell them you will always take them to the hospital if they ever feel like they are a danger to themselves. Check the laws in your area to see if they have a 72-hour psychiatric watch in place for people suspected of being a danger to themselves or others and get information on it. Some states call this the Baker Act. If your friend refuses to re-enter recovery, suggest seeing a therapist to treat depression. If you can get them to do this, it is one step closer to helping them move toward recovery.

Handling a friend who’s on a relapse requires unconditional love, patience, and compassion with boundaries. A group effort is less emotionally taxing. Do not neglect your own self-care. Share your feelings with others. While ultimately we are powerless over what another person does, we are not powerless to provide them with information and options. Relapse is reversible but suicide is not.


Patty is a nationally recognized certified recovery coach and writer. She lives in New York City.


Could not agree with you more. I have lost many to suicide….and probably will lose more as the years go by.
I have learned to reach out to those who resist any help. I can be compassionate and available.

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