Over the last 15 years, the suicide rate has climbed by an estimated 32%. While the overdose deaths in relation to the opioid crisis have become a constant issue around the country, some researchers suggest that the real suicide rates are even higher, but some of them are being misclassified as overdoses.
So, are more people dying due to drug abuse, or are more people taking their own lives using powerful street drugs and prescription narcotics?
Studying Suicide and Drugs
The idea that many of the deaths recorded as opioid overdoses may have been suicides, according to the researchers, is due to a significant gap between suicide rates and intoxication mortality rates.
A study from the Luskin School of Public Affairs at the University of California, Los Angeles, was published in the journal PLOS One. This study states that both suicide and drug intoxication death rates in the United States have risen over a period of 15 years. Researchers compiled data from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to show:
- 2000- The suicide rate was 10.40 per 100,000 people
- 2015- Suicide rate rose to 13.75 deaths per 100,000 people
- 2000- Drug intoxication mortality rate for those over the age of 15 was 7.81 deaths per 100,000
- 2015- Drug intoxication death rate for those over the age of 15 rose to 20.07 per 100,000 in 2015
This means that the drug intoxication death rate rose by 257% in those 15 years, while suicide rates only rose by 32%. While 32% is still a devastating number when it comes to such a tragic circumstance, there is still a huge difference between 32% and 257%. These researchers believe this major difference in the reports of mortality rates suggests a lack of suicide reporting.
Difficulties in Death Investigation
One of the big problems, according to the study’s author Mark Kaplan, is resources. Kaplan is a professor of social welfare at UCLA, and he stated to local news sources,
“Unfortunately, part of the problem is due to serious under-resourcing of state and local death investigation systems throughout most of the U.S.
“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 by Kaplan and his colleagues further explains that when it comes to suicide by overdose, things like an individual’s psychiatric history or the presence of a suicide note are crucial to helping professionals identify a death as a suicide.
“A suicide note, prior suicide attempt or affective disorder was documented in less than one-third of suicides and one-quarter of undetermined deaths,”
“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.”
So by acknowledging that there is not always an obvious indication that a death is a suicide, even in cases that are classified in suicide, the researchers believe that many deaths that involved drugs have most likely been categorized as overdoses instead of making a deeper inquiry into the circumstances surrounding an individual’s death.
Opioids Causing Ambiguity
With the opioid crisis in America, it has become even more difficult to measure the suicide rates. And that isn’t just this research teams opinion either.
In 2015, the CDC hosted a meeting to address the challenges presented for medical examiners and coroners across the country. The primary focus was concerning cases of fatal intoxication due to opioids and other drugs. The summary of this meeting concluded that drug intoxication deaths may be among the most difficult to determine regarding the manner of death. The summary notes that reasons for such difficulty in having a more accurate manner of death include:
- Potentially equivocal evidence
- Intent to die
- Overlapping demographic groups affected
- Overlapping premorbid risk factors (e.g., substance abuse, mental health problems).
Opioid addiction, much like any other form of substance use disorder, is often closely connected to other issues, including anxiety, trauma and mental health disorders. Some individuals living with mental health conditions who abuse opioids may be self-medicating and accidentally overdose. But others may be suffering so severely, with conditions like depressive disorders or bipolar disorder, that they ultimately take their own lives intentionally with the powerful drugs. With opioid abuse being so widespread and devastating, the line between the two has begun to blur.
Both studies mentioned clearly indicate in order to truly comprehend an accurate number of suicides by overdose, more research is needed. Both also admit that the number may never be exact.
Even though we will probably never have a definitive answer, the question is still important to ask. By knowing whether opioid deaths are caused by accidents or intentional we can develop better strategies to provide education and prevention.
This is also why mental health should always be a priority when it comes to addiction treatment.