The current opioid epidemic has drawn attention to drug overdose deaths including unintentional and suicide poisoning deaths which peaked in the United States in 2017. Concurrent with the opioid epidemic, the number and rate of suicides in the United States has increased. At the same time, the proportion of suicide deaths across cause of death has shifted and the proportion of suicides by poisoning (including overdose) has decreased. On the face of it, it would appear that the opioid epidemic has not intersected with suicide as signaled by the decline in suicide deaths due to poisoning. However, opioid use and misuse is associated with suicidal ideation and attempts and therefore it is plausible that opioids may play a role in suicide deaths by causes other than poisoning.
This study examines opioid involvement (as measured by the presence of opioids but below the lethality threshold) in suicides by causes other than poisoning,
A cross-sectional study utilizing Illinois National Violent Death Reporting System data including all suicides toxicology screened for opioids. Chi-square tests were used to compare decedent and incident circumstance characteristics by opioid toxicology screen status.
Of 1007 non-poisoning suicides screened for opioids, 83.6% (842) were opioid negative and 16.4% (165) were opioid positive. Over half (52.7%) of decedents positive for opioids died by firearm. White race, age 75 and over, and widowed or unknown marital status were associated with opioid positivity. Opioid positivity is linked to testing positive for other substances. One quarter of decedents testing positive for opioids had a history of substance abuse. Twenty eight percent of opioid positive decedents suffered from physical health problems.
Suicide decedents who are opioid positive and who die from causes other than poisoning have distinct characteristics which suggest an array of suicide prevention efforts – for example — including information on risk of suicide for opiate users in firearm sales, including suicide prevention counseling in health care settings in which opiates and/or benzodiazepines are therapeutically prescribed, and close monitoring of pain symptoms among patients experiencing chronic pain.