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Opioids May Not Be to Blame for Rise in U.S. Suicides

TUESDAY, Dec. 17, 2019 (HealthDay News) -- In a finding that suggests most opioid overdose deaths are accidental, new research shows suicide is associated with far fewer of these deaths than thought.

"Our findings suggest that the current emphasis on the contribution of suicide to opioid-related deaths may be overstated, and that for most individuals who overdose on opioids, the primary clinical focus should be on substance use," said study leader Dr. Mark Olfson. He is a professor of psychiatry, medicine and law in the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University, in New York City.

Olfson's team analyzed data on opioid overdose deaths nationwide among people 15 and older between 2000 and 2017, and found that the percentage of opioid overdose deaths attributed to suicide fell from 9% to 4% during that time.

That's far below recent estimates of 20% to 30%, said the authors of the study published Dec. 17 in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

The study did show that between 2000 and 2017, the rate of opioid-related suicide deaths more than doubled, from 0.27 to 0.58 per 100,000 people. But the rate of unintentional opioid overdose deaths rose more than sixfold, from 2.2 to 13.2 per 100,000 people.

"It's likely that the increasing use of illicit fentanyl, which is approximately 50 times more potent than heroin, has contributed to the rapid increase in unintentional opioid overdose deaths," Olfson said in a university news release.

Even though the study didn't find a close link between opioid overdose deaths and suicide deaths, the rise in opioid overdose deaths may still play at least some role in the rising suicide death rate in the United States, according to the study authors.

More research is needed to understand the role of suicidal intent in opioid overdoses, the researchers said.

"Considering the high risk of suicide after nonfatal opioid overdose, this information could be especially valuable in suicide prevention efforts," Olfson said.

More information

The U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse has more about the U.S. opioid overdose crisis.

SOURCE: Columbia University, news release, Dec. 17, 2019

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