Suicides Have Been Misclassified As Accidental Opioid Overdoses, Study Claims

Suicides Have Been Misclassified As Accidental Opioid Overdoses, Study Claims

By Beth Leipholtz 01/18/18

The suicide rate has risen 32% over a 15-year period and researchers believe the number is probably higher due to “increasing misclassification of intoxication suicides.” 

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woman pours pills out of the bottle and into her hand

Due to a significant gap between suicide rates and drug intoxication mortality rates, researchers are stating that many deaths reported as opioid overdoses may have actually been suicides. 

According to the study from the Luskin School of Public Affairs at the University of California, Los Angeles, both the suicide rate and the drug intoxication mortality rates in the U.S. rose over a 15-year span. 

Using CDC data, the study, published in the journal PLOS One, states that from 2000 to 2015, the suicide rate rose from 10.40 per 100,000 to 13.75 per 100,000. Though 32% is a significant increase, researchers say the number is likely even higher due to “increasing misclassification of intoxication suicides.” 

Additionally, from 2000 to 2015, the U.S. drug intoxication mortality rate for those over the age of 15 has risen 257%—from 7.81 deaths per 100,000 to 20.07 deaths per 100,000 in 2015.

Study author Mark Kaplan, a professor of social welfare at UCLA, told NBC Los Angeles that this gap implies a lack of suicide reporting. 

"Unfortunately, part of the problem is due to serious under-resourcing of state and local death investigation systems throughout most of the U.S.," Kaplan stated. "Many of these deaths were probably suicides, yet reported as accidental self-poisoning rather than intentional self-harm, particularly among the middle-aged."

The study states that when it comes to suicides by overdose, suicide notes and psychiatric history are important in helping professionals identify a death as a suicide when the distinction is not so obvious. 

"A suicide note, prior suicide attempt or affective disorder was documented in less than one-third of suicides and one-quarter of undetermined deaths," stated the study. "Our incorporation of undetermined deaths, as well as registered suicides, not only provided a window on the nature of suicide misclassification within the undetermined death category, but within the accident category—as a much larger reservoir for obscuring drug intoxication suicides.”

Researchers state that because of the opioid epidemic in the United States, accurate reports of suicide numbers are more difficult to determine. 

In fact, in 2015, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) even hosted a meeting to address the challenges presented for medical examiners and coroners when it comes to fatal opioid and other drug intoxication cases.

“Drug intoxication deaths are thought to be among the most challenging for which to determine manner of death,” read a summary of the meeting’s findings. “This is, in part, because of potentially equivocal evidence and intent to die, the overlapping demographic groups affected (e.g., middle-aged men), and overlapping premorbid risk factors (e.g., substance abuse, mental health problems).”

Both studies indicate that more research is needed in order to fully understand the accurate number of suicides by overdose, though that number may never be exact.

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Beth is a Minnesota girl who got sober at age 20. By day she is a website designer, and in her spare time she enjoys writing about recovery at www.lifetobecontinued.com, doing graphic design and spending time with her boyfriend and three dogs. Find Beth on LinkedInInstagram and Twitter.

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