Link Between Suicide And Opioid Use Examined

By Kelly Burch 09/11/18

Researchers hope that the results of a new study will help them better identify those at risk for suicide. 

an upset woman holding her head in pain

A three-year, $1.4 million study will examine the connection between opioid use and death by suicide, in hopes of more effectively identifying high-risk patients.

“We know that opioid use, opioid overdose and suicide are related, but we need much more specific information to guide our efforts at prevention,” Gregory Simon, MD, principal investigator of the Mental Health Research Network and a co-investigator on the study, told Health IT Analytics. “The findings from this study will be a great asset to the public health community.”

The goal of the research is to develop predictive models that can help doctors better identify and intervene with patients who are at higher risk of attempting suicide.

Researchers will analyze data covering about 24 million medical visits, 35,000 suicide attempts, and 2,600 suicide deaths. They will try to predict how likely it is that a suicide will occur within 90 days of the time an individual visits a medical professional. 

Opioid overdose deaths have increased exponentially in the past decade, while deaths by suicide increased 27% between 1999 and 2015. During that time suicides that involved opioids doubled, and may have increased even more. 

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

Despite the rising risks, doctors and mental health providers often have difficultly identifying which patients are at risk for suicide. 

“While health care settings are ideal places to intervene to prevent suicides, clinicians aren’t able to easily determine which of their patients are at elevated risk,” Yarborough said. “Our ultimate goal is to develop the most accurate suicide risk prediction tools and put them into the hands of clinicians. If our study is successful, clinicians will have a powerful new resource in the fight against suicide.”

Researchers will look at risk factors including illegal or prescribed opioid use, opioid use disorder, discontinuation or substantial dose reduction of prescription opioids, and prior non-fatal opioid-related overdoses. They will also examine how these factors affect men and women differently in order to understand whether one group is more likely to attempt suicide while using opioids. 

Healthcare providers say that while suicide is highly stigmatized, talking openly about it can reduce the number of deaths.

“I have learned that it is important to talk about survivor stories. We know that suicide is preventable,” Dr. Anne Schuchat, the principal deputy director at the CDC, said in June. “We are in a different era right now, with social media increased and also social isolation is high… We think helping overcome the isolation can improve the connectedness.”

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.