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Suicide by opioid: A disturbing new trend?

There has been a steady stream of headlines declaring that life expectancy in the United States is decreasing.

And the often-cited reason is the climbing number of opioid-related deaths.

Those two facts piqued the interest of a group of researchers who sought to reframe the way these trends can be viewed.

“We have a problem that is otherwise being underestimated,” said Ian Rockett, an injury epidemiologist and professor emeritus at West Virginia University.

Suicide rates have been steadily climbing, Rockett said, but their numbers are likely even higher. He said too often opioid-related drug overdoses aren’t classified as suicides, and he thinks they should be. These deaths are often deemed by medical examiners as “accidental injury deaths” unless a suicide note is found. This classification doesn’t take into account that suicide and drug overdoses both arise from “purposeful” behaviors.

To get at the root of that problem, Rockett and his colleagues developed a model of self-injury mortality that factors together both categories — overdose deaths and suicides. This combined classification “is intended to promote prevention and earlier interventions” by recognizing common, preexisting mental health issues that could have been in play, the researchers wrote.

“By always separating drug deaths from suicide is to underestimate the mental health crisis,” Rockett said. “These are all mental health issues, and they need to be on the front burner.”

The report, published Monday in the British journal Injury Prevention, shows that together these deaths would become the seventh leading cause of death in the U.S., just surpassing diabetes.

It also focuses attention from lawmakers and health practitioners on the nation’s mental health crisis and how both suicide and overdose death rates highlight the system’s gaps. Rockett conducted a similar study two years earlier.

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