The Role of Suicide in the Opioid Crisis

By Roger Chriss, PNN Columnist

Suicide is an under-appreciated factor in the opioid crisis. Media reports rarely mention it, and pundits and politicians often ignore it. But the reality emerging from experts and a careful study of drug deaths shows that it is very important.

“We’ve done preliminary work suggesting that 22 to 37 percent of opioid-related overdoses are, in fact, suicides or suicide attempts,” Bobbi Jo Yarborough, PsyD, an investigator at the Kaiser Permanente Center for Health Research, told HealthItAnalytics.

Yarborough’s estimate is 2 to 3 times higher than the CDC’s. The CDC’s Annual Surveillance Report of Drug-Related Risks and Outcomes states that there were 5,206 suicides among the 47,105 poisoning deaths in 2015. This represents a suicide rate of 11 percent. The CDC gives similar data for 2016 drug deaths, estimating that only 8% were suicides.

Recognition of the importance of suicide in the opioid crisis has been slow to come.

In 2017, then-president of the American Psychiatric Association, Dr. Maria Oquendo, suggested that the suicide rate may be as high as 40 percent, writing in a guest blog for the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) that the risk for suicide death was over 2-fold for men with opioid use disorder and for women it was more than 8-fold.

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Now, finally, interest in this issue is growing. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention recently issued its first grant for studying suicide related to opioid use.

Kaiser Permanente also recently received a grant from NIDA to “examine the role of opioid use in suicide risk and develop better tools to help clinicians identify patients who are at highest risk.”  Kaiser researchers plan to use machine learning and analytics to predict the likelihood of a suicide attempt within 90 days of a primary care outpatient or mental health visit.

Fundamental questions about suicide in the opioid crisis remain to be answered.

"No one has answered the chicken and egg (question)," Dr. Kiame Mahaniah, a Massachusetts family physician, told NPR. “(Do people) have mental health issues that lead to addiction, or did a life of addiction then trigger mental health problems?”

Similarly, people with chronic pain disorders are thought to be “at increased risk for suicide compared with the general population,” as noted in a 2018 PAINWeek conference presentation.

But causality is also uncertain. At present it is not clear what proportion of suicides in the opioid crisis are due to despair, anxiety, addiction or the increasingly poor quality of pain care. There are many anecdotal reports of pain patient suicides, a tragically ignored feature of the crisis.

These distinctions are critical for public health policy in the opioid crisis. Current policy is largely geared toward restricting the opioid supply and monitoring legal pills after prescription. This does little to address underlying mental health issues, illegal drug use, or the impact of psychosocial or economic circumstances on people.

We need a clearer understanding of the opioid crisis, and that includes suicide.

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Roger Chriss lives with Ehlers Danlos syndrome and is a proud member of the Ehlers-Danlos Society. Roger is a technical consultant in Washington state, where he specializes in mathematics and research.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.