Addiction Policy Forum Blog

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Suicide might be a root cause of more opioid overdoses than we thought

By Mark Gold, MD on December 12, 2019

An “intentional” suicide attempt by fatal drug overdose refers to an individual seeking to overdose in order to end her life. This may sound straightforward enough. But the issue is much more nuanced, related to how we understand and respond to the opioid overdose epidemic. If all overdoses are considered “accidental” until proven otherwise, we may be missing higher rates of suicide and depression, and different approaches to prevention, identification, and treatment. 

How exactly can coroners and officials who write on death certificates determine whether someone “intentionally” wanted to die by overdose or “unintentionally” died by overdose, without any desire to die at all? The Directors of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) and National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) recently reviewed the literature linking overdose and suicide.1 Up to 30 percent of all accidental overdoses are actually suicides. They observed that, controlling for other conditions, suicidal thoughts are 40-50 percent higher among individuals misusing prescription opioids, and that, “people with a prescription opioid use disorder were also twice as likely to attempt suicide as individuals who did not misuse prescription opioids.”

In the U.S., suicide rates are increasing, overdoses are increasing, and life expectancy is decreasing—“deaths of despair”, they are often called. Between 1999 and 2009, opioid-related suicide rates doubled.2 Opioid-related overdose deaths among Americans and adolescents have also surged. And both opioid-related deaths and suicides have increased to epidemic levels in the United States. Doctors Nora D. Volkow and Maria A. Oquendo3 have written that declining motivation to live can range “from engagement in increasingly risky behaviors despite a lack of conscious suicidal intent to frank suicidal ideation and intent.” Most of what we used to think as leading causes of death have been decreasing. Deaths due to cardiovascular disease, cancer, stroke, and lung disease have all been steadily decreasing since 2000. But deaths from drugs, alcohol, and suicide have been increasing. Things have changed so much and so fast that more U.S. deaths now result from self-harm than even diabetes.4 Suicide is more than twice as common as homicide in the United States. Accidents, which may sometimes be covert suicide, make up the other leading causes of death. The major default manner-of-death assignment for injury cases contain misclassified suicides.5

Yet little attention has been paid to these deaths’ contributions to overdoses, suicide, and addiction.6 In a recent study, nationally recognized research leaders explore the connection between opioid-related overdoses and the spectrum of suicidal motivation.

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