A new study has found that alcohol is to blame for most suicide attempts by overdosing.

Wellington Hospital emergency doctor Paul Quigley says at least 80 per cent of the 127 people who turned up at his emergency department last year after taking an overdose had alcohol as "the initiating agent".

Most (56 per cent) arrived at the weekend, mainly on the "party nights" of Friday and Saturday.

"When you analyse it, where their situation started from is the two bottles of wine they had to start with, or the four bottles of wine," he told the Alcohol Advisory Council's annual conference in Manukau yesterday.

"That's when you become impulsive. If you're already sad and have depressive tendencies, alcohol makes you sadder, and it makes you impulsive."

Alcohol had been one of the things people used to shut out feelings of depression for thousands of years.

But Dr Quigley said you would expect a smoother pattern of suicide attempts through the week if both the overdoses and the alcohol were simply the result of depression.

He believes the peak in overdoses on party nights indicates that alcohol is often the main culprit. People binge-drink with friends, get depressed as a result and then take an overdose.

Women were most likely to harm themselves as a result.

"Men might express themselves with anger or violence. Women express themselves with paracetamol or overdose episodes."

He said young women drinking in a group might see their friends being happy but not feel happy themselves.

"Their peer group are not supporting them when they are drinking, so they are vulnerable. Their peer group doesn't say stop."

If their boyfriends were drinking too, arguments and violence could develop.

"That also leads into, 'Sod you, I'll take some paracetamol!"'

The clinical leader of Rotorua's Rotovegas youth health centre, Dr Tania Pinfold, agreed that alcohol often made people more depressed and in extreme cases suicidal.

"It's part of the impulsivity that goes with drinking," she said.

"For young men, that's the combination of alcohol and testosterone, which is not a good one. For young women, impulsivity shows in other ways. That's where you would have the unsafe driving and unsafe sex."

Dr Quigley said his staff now phoned every patient who came into the emergency department with an alcohol-related condition between one and three days later to offer help with their alcohol problems.

So far only 6 per cent have taken up the offer of counselling.

Dr Pinfold said the only long-term solution was to see alcohol and other problems in the context of each person's whole life.

The mother of three teenagers herself, she said all parents needed to make sure they stayed involved in their youngsters' lives.

"Parents need to know where their kids are, what they're doing, who they're with, how they're getting home."