By Pat Anson, Editor
Arizona Senator John McCain has reintroduced legislation that calls for a comprehensive review of veteran suicides by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), including the role of opioids and other prescription drugs in their deaths.
Veterans suffer from high rates of chronic pain, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). According to a recent VA study, an average of 20 veterans die each day from suicide, a rate that is 21 percent higher than the civilian population.
“The tragedy of 20 veterans a day dying from suicide is a national scandal,” said McCain. “Combatting this epidemic will require the best research and understanding about the key causes of veteran suicide, including whether overmedication of drugs, such as opioid painkillers, is a contributing factor in suicide-related deaths.”
If passed, the Veterans Overmedication Prevention Act would authorize an independent study by the National Academies of Sciences of veterans who died of suicide, violent death or accidental death over the last five years – including what drugs they were taking at the time of their death.
The bill specifically calls for a listing of “any medications that carried a black box warning, were prescribed for off-label use, were psychotropic, or carried warnings that include suicidal ideation.”
Dozens of medications prescribed to treat chronic pain, depression or PTSD are psychotropic – meaning they affect a patient’s mental state. They include tranquilizers, sedatives, antidepressants and anticonvulsants such as Lyrica (pregabalin), Cymbalta (duloxetine), Neurontin (gabapentin), Xanax (alprazolam), and Valium (diazepam). Many of the drugs also have warning labels that they “may cause suicidal thoughts or actions.”
McCain’s bill may bring new attention to something that is rarely discussed in the national debate over opioids and the overdose epidemic: many of the drugs prescribed "off label” as alternatives to opioids raise the risk of suicide and have other side effects.
“I almost committed suicide myself after being prescribed Lyrica and Cymbalta. I went from 190 pounds to 300 pounds, and had suicidal thoughts almost from the outset,” Alessio Ventura wrote in a recent guest column for PNN. “After the Lyrica and Cymbalta were stopped, I stayed on OxyContin and had bi-weekly testosterone shots. I lost all of the weight and the suicidal thoughts went away. It was a miracle.”
Vietnam veteran Ron Pence was pressured by VA doctors to take Cymbalta for his chronic arthritis.
“The VA is really pushing these drugs that I would not give to a dog. They are a lobotomy in a pill. I WILL DIE BEFORE TAKING THEM. They take away your ability to think, speak and make decisions; and come with side effects such as permanent blindness, kidney stones and suicide, even in non-depressed people with no mental problems,” Pence wrote in a guest column.
“Even trying to get off this drug under a doctor's care can end in death for some people. Besides that, it’s nothing more than a sugar pill for the pain.”
As PNN has reported, the VA recently adopted new clinical guidelines that strongly recommend against the prescribing of opioids for chronic pain. The guidelines recommend exercise and psychological therapies such as cognitive behavioral therapy, along with non-opioid drugs such as Neurontin. No mention is made that Neurontin and other non-opioid drugs raise the risk of suicide, only that they “carry risk of harm.”
McCain’s bill would require the National Academies of Science to study the medications or illegal substances in the system of each veteran who died; whether multiple medications were prescribed by VA physicians or non-VA physicians; and the percentage of veterans who are receiving psychological therapy and its effectiveness versus other treatments.