About every five hours, a Michigan resident dies by suicide. Fatal drug overdoses happen even more frequently.
New research by the University of Michigan suggests an upsurge in opioid overdoses and suicides may be linked. This finding suggests that public health specialists may need to reexamine their approach to policies intended to prevent such tragedies.
“Unlike other common causes of death, overdose and suicide deaths have increased over the last 15 years in the United States,” Amy Bohnert, associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Michigan Medical School, told Bridge in an interview.
Both outcomes share “factors that increase risk for each.. (and) support the idea that they are related problems and the increases are due to shared fundamental causes.”
Bohnert co-authored the study by U-M and the Veterans Affairs Center for Clinical Management Research, published in January in the New England Journal of Medicine. Across the U.S., deaths from suicide and unintentional overdoses went from a combined 40,000 in 2000 to over 110,000 in 2017, a rise of 168 percent.
The spike has been even more pronounced in Michigan ‒ rising three-fold from 1,100 to 3,300 over this same period, a disturbing mosaic of suffering across Michigan that treatment policies have failed to slow.
Large rural swaths of the Upper Peninsula and northern Lower Peninsula saw the highest suicide rates – in some counties, double the state average. Fueled by the opioid crisis, southeast Michigan urban areas like Wayne, Macomb and St. Clair counties led the state in overdose deaths from 2015 through 2017.
The U-M study noted more than 40 percent of U.S. suicide and overdose deaths in 2017 involved opioids. Despite efforts to address the problem, researchers conclude it’s “clear that prevention efforts have been insufficient.”
Among the answers, the authors say, are better methods for determining who’s at risk for suicide or overdose, an expansion of opioid treatment and widespread distribution of a drug that can reverse an opioid overdose. Bridge reporting has highlighted many of these same policy recommendations.
Measures that can help
Despite the sobering statistics, experts and advocates alike point to other measures that can help stem the tide of suicide and overdoses.
“There are many different levels to having a more effective approach on prevention,” said Mark Ilgen, a U-M researcher who co-authored the New England Journal study.
A U-M study found that young people who filled an opioid prescription for wisdom tooth removal were nearly three times as likely to be filling opioid prescriptions weeks or months later than patients given less addictive pain medication. Another study found anti-inflammatory drugs like Ibuprofen were more effective than opioids in relieving dental pain.