CDC Report Ignores Suicides of Pain Patients

By Pat Anson, Editor

The suicide rate in the United States continues to climb, with nearly 45,000 people taking their own lives in 2016, according to a new Vital Signs report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The suicide rate in the U.S. is so high it rivals the so-called “opioid epidemic.” The number of Americans who died by suicide (44,965) exceeds the overdose deaths linked to both illicit and prescription opioids (42,249).  The nationwide suicide rate has risen by over 30 percent since 1999.

“Unfortunately, our data shows that the problem is getting worse,” said CDC Deputy Director Anne Schuchat, MD. “These findings are disturbing. Suicide is a public health problem that can be prevented.”  

Contrary to popular belief, depression is not always a major factor in suicides. The report found that less than half of the Americans who died by suicide had a diagnosed mental health issue. Substance abuse, physical health problems, and financial, legal or relationship issues were often contributing factors. So was the availability of firearms, which were involved in nearly half of all suicides.

But while CDC researchers can go into great detail about the methods, causes, demographics, ethnicity and even the drugs used by suicide victims, they did not investigate anecdotal reports of a growing number of suicides among pain patients.

“Our report found that physical health problems were present in about a fifth of individuals as circumstances considered to lead up to suicide," Schuchat said in a conference call with reporters. "That doesn’t differentiate whether it was intractable pain versus other conditions that might have been factors.”

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Asked directly if lack of access to opioid medication may be contributing to pain patient suicides, Schuchat said that federal agencies were “working on comprehensive pain management strategies,” but they were not investigating patient suicides, such as the recent tragic death of a Montana woman.

“We don’t have other studies right now. But I would say that the management of pain is a very important issue for the CDC and Health and Human Services,” she said.

PNN asked a CDC spokesperson if the agency was conducting any studies or surveys to determine whether the CDC's 2016 opioid guideline was contributing to patient suicides, and what impact it was having on the quality of pain care. The boilerplate response we received essentially said no, and that the CDC was only tracking prescriptions. 

"Through its quality improvement collaborative and its work with academic partners, CDC is evaluating the impact of clinical decisions on patient health outcomes by examining data on overall opioid prescribing rates, as well as measures such as dose and days’ supply, since research shows that taking opioids for longer periods of time or in higher doses increases a person’s risk of addiction and overdose," Courtney Leland said in an email.

As PNN has reported, the CDC’s guideline may be contributing to a rising number of suicides in the pain community.  In a survey of over 3,100 pain patients on the one-year anniversary of the guideline, over 40 percent said they had considered suicide because their pain was poorly treated.

Most patients said they had been taken off opioids or had their doses reduced to comply with the  CDC guideline, which has been widely adopted throughout the U.S. healthcare system. Many patients say they can’t even find a doctor willing to treat them.

‘Making Plans to End This Life’

“I am scared to death as pain for me is unbearable. If I cannot get a prescription for relief I will probably be one of those (suicide) statistics because as far as I'm concerned, my quality life would be gone and no longer worth living. I will be sure to leave a note telling the CDC to go to hell too,” one PNN reader said.

“If my life is reduced to screams of agony in my bed while my father has to watch, if that happens and I can’t take anymore suffering, I will leave a note (probably a very long one), and in it I will say that the people who are making these guidelines into law, should be charged with my homicide,” another patient wrote.

“My suicidal ideation has increased exponentially. I have now resorted to cutting and punishing myself in order to distract from the physical chronic pain I suffer with,” said another patient. “I am struggling terribly and can’t even get sleep. I have been making plans to end this life and if the pain continues without treatment, it will not be hard to do.”

“My wife has been talking about suicide as the only option to escape her chronic pain and migraine headaches. I am starting to think the same thoughts,” wrote a man who also suffers from chronic pain. “Many chronic pain patients left without a doctor or opiate painkillers will commit suicide to escape the pain and suffering. My wife and I included.”

British Columbia Revising Its Guideline

The Canadian province of British Columbia was one of the first to adopt the CDC guideline as a standard of practice for physicians. In April 2016, British Columbia declared a public health emergency because overdose deaths from illicit fentanyl, heroin and prescription drugs were soaring. In response, the College of Physicians and Surgeons of British Columbia released new professional standards and guidelines that were closely modeled after the CDC’s.

Two years later, the British Columbia guidelines are now being revised because too many patients were being denied care or abandoned by doctors fearful of prescribing opioids.

“Physicians cannot exclude or dismiss patients from their practice because they have used or are currently using opioids. It’s really a violation of the human rights code and it’s certainly discrimination and that’s not acceptable or ethical practice,” college registrar Heidi Oetter told The Globe and Mail.

Under the old guidelines, British Columbia doctors were strongly encouraged to keep opioid doses below 90 milligrams of morphine a day – the same recommendation as the CDC’s. Now they’re being told to use their own discretion and to work with patients in finding an effective dose.

“Hopefully it’s clear to physicians that the college is really expecting that they exercise good professional discretion, that they are really engaging patients in informed consent discussions and that patients are really aware of the potential risks that are associated with opioids, particularly if they’re taking them in conjunction with alcohol or sedatives,” Oetter said.

Not only were the old guidelines harmful to patients, they were ineffective in reducing overdoses. British Columbia still has the highest number of overdoses in Canada, with 1,448 deaths last year.

Overdoses also continue to soar in the United States – mostly due to illicit fentanyl and other street drugs. Will the CDC change its guideline -- as promised -- because it is harming patients and failing to reduce overdoses?

"CDC will revisit this guideline as new evidence becomes available," the agency said in 2016. "CDC is committed to evaluating the guideline to identify the impact of the recommendations on clinician and patient outcomes, both intended and unintended, and revising the recommendations in future updates when warranted.”

Today’s report on suicides indicates the agency has no plans to do either.