Caregivers with a family member affected by addiction problems are often exhausted, drained dry of their empathy and compassionate capacities.
They recount countless cycles of suspended hope followed by just as many broken promises as they watch the affected person return time and again to their compulsive addiction despite a seemingly obvious trail of destruction behind them.
Caregivers learn to cope with the endless demands on their energies by blending the words uttered by the affected persons as a cocktail of lies, manipulation and attention-seeking antics to get what they want.In time, the cries for help from the affected person turn into cries for help by the boy who cried wolf and eventually fading into indistinguishable white noise.
Professor Lisa Firestone of the Glendon Association observes that there is a natural tendency for caregivers to minimise any suicide expressions in general.Responses such as, “Well, his past attempts weren’t serious.” or “He is just manipulating to get something.” are commonly observed.There is also a general tendency to not want the expressions to be true.In the case of addicts, words such as “I want to die” or “I am going to end my life” no longer convey the same meaning or gravity of their sense of desperation.
Why should we want to pay attention to an addict’s cry for help?
In Singapore, we lose 1.1 lives every day to suicide.It is still the leading cause of death for youths aged 10 to 29.While direct correlation evidence is still being researched on, studies in America have shown that more than 90% of people who kill themselves suffer from depression have a substance abuse disorder or both. Suicidality and addiction share a high concordance relationship.
When we overlay the statistics with a physiological lens, we note that both groups of persons have been observed in studies to have a dysfunctional hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis which essentially controls our body’s response to stress.
In a person with a normal functioning HPA axis, on the reception of a stressor, the hypothalamus in our brain instructs the secretion of the corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF) and vasopressin to stimulate our pituitary glands to produce the adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH).The ACTH, in turn, stimulates glucocorticoid synthesis and release (commonly referred to as cortisol) from the adrenal glands.This chain reaction provides a person the increased energy to handle the stress event and to do so without suffering from the pain and fatigue.When the stress event is gone, the body produces a negative feedback loop which then brings the body system back to homeostasis.
In a person exposed to a persistent or extreme level of stress, or in a person who frequently activates the HPA axis through substance use, the body starts to blunt the sensitivity of the HPA axis and blunt cell receptivity to cortisol in its efforts to return to and maintain homeostasis.This alteration to the sensitivity of the HPA axis affects our ability to tolerate physical and mental stresses and creates a need for a much bigger stimulus to activate the HPA axis (which may mean higher dosage of substance use); and when the HPA axis does react, produces a much bigger and exaggerated response (which may translate to more aggressive behaviours).
What Does This Mean In Practical Terms?
Many suicidal persons described having a voice in their head which is constantly there; telling them how much they need to seek fulfilment and comfort by reaching for the desired stimulus, whether it be a substance or a behaviour, of which one is killing themselves.Their mind starts to command them to constantly plan, to seek out and to take actions to soothe the unbearable lack that they are feeling.Eventually, the voice in the head goes from coaxing and persuading to being more intensive and aggressive towards the self to take immediate drastic actions.
The relief of death, a final refuge, becomes alluring and pleasurable and the fear of dying eventually transforms into the fear of not dying and becoming the loser, disappointment, and burden that they already believe themselves to be to their caregivers.This dual push towards drastic action and the need for an ever-increasing amount of substance in addicts leads to an increase in the risk level of suicidality.
What Can We Look Out For?
How then does the caregiver separate the wheat from the chaff amid the chaos that addiction has already wrought onto the family system to detect the risks of suicidality?
Below are some, though not exclusive, common markers to look out for. It is particularly useful to note changes in the content of the affected person’s expressions and any escalation or sudden extinction of intensity.
Intense Emotional Outbursts
Extreme Isolation or Withdrawal
The feeling of Being a Misfit in Every Way
Researching or Procuring Means of Suicide.
Self-Harm, Including Risky Substance Use or Behaviours.
Planning of Affairs.
Presence of Trigger Events
Loss of Primary Relationship.
Physical or Mental Health Conditions That Debilitate.
Abuse or Trauma Events.
What Can Caregivers Do On Observing The Signs?
Ask the Suicide Questions:
In the past few weeks, have you ever wished that you were dead?
In the past few weeks, have you felt that you or your family would be better off if you were dead?
In the past week, have you made plans about killing yourself?
Have you tried to kill yourself?
If the answers are yes to any or to all the questions, caregivers are encouraged to take the following first steps:
Be empathetic towards the suicidal wish.
The objective is not to agree with the act of suicide but to understand what has happened to lead the affected person to the conclusion that suicide is the only solution.
Find a genuine connection with the affected person.
However difficult that person might have been in your life, express what this person means to you personally and how the loss of this person would affect you.
Make a safety plan.
Ask the affected person to agree to not take or delay any action to harm themselves until they get to or you get them to professional help.
Professor Lisa Firestone observes that suicidal persons are generally ambivalent: a part of them wants to die but a part of them wants to live as well.There is often a process of the dividing up of the self within the person, between an aspect which is life affirming and engaging with the outer world; and the anti-self, which is self-critical, self-hating and ultimately suicidal.The key to recovery is to connect with and help strengthen that part of them that wants to keep on living.
6 Dazzi, T., Gribble, R., Wessely, S., & Fear, N. (2014). Does asking about suicide and related behaviours induce suicidal ideation? What is the evidence? Psychological Medicine, 44(16), 3361-3363. doi:10.1017/S0033291714001299
Predictive algorithms, the creation of alternate realities in which we are unlimited by the constraints of the real world we live in – such methods are extensively practiced by the gaming industry to draw players in. Gaming is undeniably a popular and widely-adopted mode of de-stressing, but how much is too much?
In May 2019, the World Health Organisation officially recognised “gaming addiction” as a mental health condition. It is diagnosed when a person displays a gaming behaviour pattern that causes significant disruption to their daily life for a period of 12 months. Meanwhile, a study showed that Singaporeans aged 18 and above spend a weekly average of 7 hours and 26 minutes playing video games, and that approximately 10 percent of Singaporeans game for more than 20 hours per week. This ranks us as the highest in Asia, and third highest in the world, falling only behind Germany and the United States.
What leads these addicted individuals to their compulsive gaming behaviour? Besides the prevalence and ease of access to games on various gaming platforms, video games often act as a form of escapism for many players. As a shining proponent of the alluring, edge-cutting virtuality, games allow for players to throw themselves into a virtual landscape that is contrasted from their – comparatively – mundane everyday lives, and can serve as a distractor from real-life problems that they are unconfident or reluctant to face. Moreover, it can be easy to fall into the trap set by game creators. Game designers construct games in a way that applies principles of behavioural economics as well as psychological mechanisms to explore stages and levelling up processes that trigger the brain’s reward system. In-game statuses matter a lot to gamers – the higher the rank you possess, the more pride and self-esteem you hold, knowing that you can show it off to your friends or gaming counterparts. As a result, individuals are often inclined to continue striving to climb the virtual hierarchy.
Naturally, excessive gaming has its consequences. When an individual develops a gaming disorder, his lifestyles can be disrupted in more ways than one. What is also important to take note of, is that the harmful effects of gaming addiction is not only limited to the individual alone, but could also affect the people in his or her social circle. Some of these adverse effects can include:
Obsessive Behaviour Individuals who are addicted to video games are always anxious to get back to games and will often display irritable, bad-temper aggressive behaviour whenever they are separated from their games unwillingly.
Increased Social Isolation With extended periods of intense gaming, these individuals become more withdrawn and disconnected from family, friends and colleagues, causing them to drift away from their loved ones.
Other Mental Health Conditions Gaming addiction can eventually lead to other issues that include depression or anxiety disorders. Sometimes, depression may follow due to the prolonged social isolation.
Other Physical Health Conditions A gaming addiction can also have a number of physical effects. When one devotes an excessive amount of time to the gaming activity, this can lead to physical conditions such as the carpal tunnel syndrome, migraine, back-aches or eye-strain. Extreme addiction may cause gamers to skip meals and rest, or neglect their personal hygiene as they lose control of themselves and can’t resist the desire to play more and more.
Gaming addiction is a serious matter, and can be degenerative if not addressed in the early stages with the initial symptoms and signs. Habits, including unhealthy gaming habits, can be formed anytime between 1 to 3 months, and it will be significantly easier to curb such self-destructive behaviour the earlier we try to tackle it.
While we are concerned with the various health risks and conditions commonly associated with gaming addiction, we cannot deny that video games are also undoubtedly entertaining and can be a good way to de-stress. However, as the risk of gaming addiction increases with increasing time spent gaming, what we want to advocate is moderation, rather than complete avoidance. With that said, if you are someone who is battling gaming compulsion, try to keep the amount of time spent gaming under control by setting time limits for play and stick to them. If possible, try reducing your playtime gradually by setting a timer on your phone, or use softwares such as ‘Cold Turkey Blocker’ to help you do this by blocking access to websites or applications so that you can get offline when you need to.
Like other forms of addictions, don’t try to go cold turkey at one go. Stopping altogether may cause you to feel as though there is a huge void in your life, hence increasing the likelihood of a relapse instead.
Alcohol. A beverage that many people enjoy drinking; be it for socialisation or as an escape from reality. However, it is also a beverage that can harm your health and adversely affect many lives. Indeed, alcohol abuse has become increasingly rampant, where it is one of the leading causes of disease and death, with 5.3% of all global deaths and over 200 diseases and injury conditions resulting from the harmful use of alcohol. Worryingly, it is also a phenomenon that has affected Singapore, with 9.6% of Singaporeans engaging in binge drinking (as of 2016) and an increasing number of Singaporean young adults battling Alcohol Use Disorders (AUD). As such, alcohol abuse has become a growing cause of concern.
There are many reasons why alcohol consumption is increasing. Alcohol consumption has been perpetuated by the media in recent years, with an increase in advertising and marketing of alcohol. For instance, in Australia, people are exposed to about nine alcohol televised advertisements every month. In turn, exposure to such advertisements causes alcohol consumption to be glorified and promoted, where people have unrealistic positive expectations towards alcohol, believing that it boosts one’s mood and invokes cheerfulness and confidence. Additionally, alcohol consumption has also increased due to peer pressure. Be it a work engagement or partying with friends, people often find it hard to say no to alcohol, as that rejection may cause disapproval among colleagues or friends. Thus, many people engage in risky drinking behaviour to socialise and develop their relationships.
However, a more significant reason behind alcohol consumption is feelings of anxiety or having anxiety disorders. People with anxiety disorders have 2 to 3 times the risk of having alcohol use disorders (Smith & Randall, 2012). Many people tend to use alcohol to reduce social anxiety, as they believe that alcohol is an excellent aid to speak up and gain more confidence around others. Similarly, people use alcohol as a form of self-medication to overcome anxiety symptoms and stress, relying on it as a coping mechanism. However, contrary to popular beliefs, alcohol exacerbates rather than alleviates anxiety symptoms. This worsened anxiety makes them drink more and have more alcohol-related problems, which causes further anxiety and stress.
Alcohol abuse also causes anxiety. Drinking alcohol builds a tolerance to de-stressing effects of alcohol. This creates a temporary sense of relaxation but later leads to feelings of depression and anxiety. This is because the prolonged use of alcohol can act as a stressor and activate the body’s stress response system, changing neurotransmitter levels in the brain and causing an increase in stress and anxiety. As such, alcohol can worsen anxiety symptoms.
Therefore, anxiety and alcohol abuse tend to fuel each other in a vicious feed-forward cycle of co-occurring addiction and anxiety, which is difficult to break out from. As such, integrated treatment for both anxiety and alcohol use should be readily available.
There have been existing parallel or subsequent attempts to treat both anxiety disorder and AUD (i.e. treatment for anxiety disorders first, followed by AUD). However, studies have found that parallel treatments have caused worse alcohol outcomes compared to just seeking one treatment. This is possible because the cognitive load of receiving two separate treatments may be confusing or overwhelming for people, causing them to feel anxious or turn back to drinking as a coping mechanism. As such, these type of treatments causes a “co-morbidity roundabout”, which is a metaphor of mental health problems resurfacing when attempting to tackle substance disorders (and vice versa), thus failing to break out from the vicious cycle of these co-morbid disorders. Therefore, it is clear that both anxiety disorder and AUD are inter-related issues, and an integrated treatment approach is vital to tackle both disorders.
Stapinski et. al. (2015) carried out an integrated treatment for comorbid social anxiety and AUD, where participants undergo both Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and motivational interviewing. Moreover, it involves core components such as building coping skills, developing alternative reinforcers and preventing relapse. This provides participants with useful skills such as enhancing social support networks, correcting misconceptions towards the benefits of drinking, reducing avoidance of social situations and developing healthy coping skills to manage triggers for drinking or anxiety.
This study took place over ten 90-minute sessions, where 117 participants with both social anxiety and AUD took part in this study. 61 of the participants received integrated treatment (both AUD and social anxiety) and 56 of the participants received treatment for AUD only. Results showed that both treatments enabled a great reduction in alcohol use and dependency. However, participants that underwent the integrated treatment were observed to have a greater decrease in social anxiety symptoms and a greater increase in overall quality of life. More importantly, these results remained constant even after a 6-month follow-up. This means that integrated treatment has long term effects on overall functioning and quality of life.
While the above has proven that integrated treatment is indeed useful in overcoming social anxiety and AUD, the road to recovery is a long and arduous journey, where there are a lot of physical and mental challenges suffered by both the clients and their families. Hence, these issues could be more easily overcome or even avoided if there are early intervention and support to at-risk youths.
Over the years, the number of youths drinking alcohol has increased. According to the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (2004), the number of youths that engage in binge drinking increase tremendously between the age of 18 and 21 (from 18% to 35% respectively). Furthermore, 18-year-olds who drank alcohol as a coping mechanism or who had anxiety disorders were 1.8-3.8 times more likely to drink. Both groups had a greater risk of transitioning from low-risk alcohol use at age 18 to high-risk alcohol use at age 21.
There are many motives that may drive youths to drink alcohol. A primary reason is that youths are at a phase where they are transitioning to adulthood. Adulthood brings more stress and anxiety due to changes such as new relationships; along with new responsibilities and challenges such as living in a dormitory and budgeting. Additionally, this phase of life also provides youth with more autonomy and drinking opportunities (e.g. clubbing, drinking games). With these drastic changes in life, youths often drink to enhance positive moods, socialise with others, conform to social groups, or as a coping mechanism to overcome stress or anxiety. This causes harms associated with alcohol to peak in early adulthood, emphasising the importance of early intervention to avoid these detrimental consequences.
An ongoing programme called “Inroads Study” (Stapinsky et. al., 2019) aims to provide early intervention to youths with anxiety disorders and AUD. It seeks to enhance anxiety coping skills and address coping-motivated drinking. Moreover, this programme is specially tailored to make it more relevant and appealing to youths. This includes making the programme available online, which is preferred by youths as it is more convenient, affordable and reduces stigma. Participants can freely access online therapy sessions and modules about tackling challenges often faced by youths. Thus, such interventions can address the interconnections between anxiety and alcohol use, as well as reach out successfully to youths in a relevant and appealing manner.
Prevention programmes are also forms of early intervention that may benefit younger youths (i.e. 13- or 14-year-olds) that have a ‘high-risk’ of developing substance disorders, even if they do not currently have a substance disorder. It is vital to identify early onset of problems faced by youths and nipping them in the bud, providing them with early support and teaching them relevant life skills. This prevents problems faced by youths from developing into more severe adulthood problems such as substance disorders, chronic mental health problems and delinquency.
One such prevention programme was organised by Edalati & Conrod (2019), who first identified at-risk youths through the Substance Use Risk Profile Scale; where those with higher levels of certain personality traits (e.g. sensation seeking and negative thinking) were at higher risk of abusing substances before the onset of use. Afterwards, these youths attended coping skills workshops, CBT and motivational interviewing. Results showed that the programme proved effective in reducing alcohol use, alcohol-related harms and emotional and behavioural problems (i.e. symptoms of anxiety and depression). This shows the importance of early intervention and prevention programmes.
In conclusion, it is apparent that there are interconnection and the longstanding link between anxiety and alcohol use, where this co-morbidity can cause huge effects on one’s physical and mental wellbeing. Thus, this raises the importance of integrated treatment, allowing both conditions to be resolved at the same time. Furthermore, early intervention is extremely vital to offer support to youths and prevent potential disorders from occurring. More importantly, all this shows that alcohol is not the answer to relieve stress and anxiety, and can only serve to exacerbate rather than resolve our problems. Thus, such action could be done to reduce excessive alcohol use in our society, such that harmful usage and effects of alcohol could be prevented.
Smith, J. P., & Randall, C. L. (2012). Anxiety and alcohol use disorders: Comorbidity and treatment considerations. Alcohol Research: Current Reviews, 34(4), 414–431.
Stapinski, L. A., Rapee, R. M., Sannibale, C., Teesson, M., Haber, P. S., & Baillie, A. J. (2015). The clinical and theoretical basis for integrated cognitive behavioral treatment of comorbid social anxiety and alcohol use disorders. Cognitive and Behavioral Practice, 22(4), 504–521.
Golding, J., & ALSPAC Study Team (2004). The Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC)–study design and collaborative opportunities. Eur J Endocrinol. 151, U119-U123.
Stapinski, L., Prior, K., Newton, N., Deady, M., Kelly, E., Lees, B., Teesson, M., & Baillie, A. (2019). Protocol for the Inroads Study: A Randomized Controlled Trial of an Internet-Delivered, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy-Based Early Intervention to Reduce Anxiety and Hazardous Alcohol Use Among Young People. Journal of Medical Internet Research, 8(4), 1-14.
Edalati, H., & Conrod, P. J. (2019). A Review of Personality-Targeted Interventions for Prevention of Substance Misuse and Related Harm in Community Samples of Adolescents. Frontiers in psychiatry, 9, 770.
“Vitality management is provided for organizations that have a vision”. A quote from Pauline van Dorssen, writer of “Vital People in a Vital Organisation”. This is a new successful training (NIP). Positive psychology and the use of vitality are central. The response from Occupational and Organisational Psychologists and Occupational Health Psychologists was exuberant, with all available places booked. In addition, the same question arises from organizations, who often need advice and coaching in the field of vitality.
As harrowing details of the British banker murder trial emerge, the media have shone a spotlight on his mental health and use of the ‘diminished responsibility’ defence. Here is a short introduction to the concept of ‘diminished responsibility’ and the role that forensic mental health experts may play in this trial written by Leeran Gold, Psychologist in our Forensic Service.