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  • Posted February 19, 2024

Access to Opioids Could Be Boosting Suicide Rates

Increased access to prescription opioids has driven up U.S. suicide rates by making it easier to women to end their lives, a new study claims.

The study also blames a shrinking federal safety net during tough economic times for rising suicide rates.

“We contend that the U.S. federal government's weak regulatory oversight of the pharmaceutical industry and tattered social safety nets have significantly shaped U.S. suicide risk,” said lead researcher Daniel Simon, a doctoral candidate in sociology and a research affiliate with the University of Colorado-Boulder's Institute of Behavioral Science.

U.S. suicide rates had been steadily declining until the late 1990s, when the numbers started ticking up, researchers said. They've risen steadily ever since.

Analyzing nearly 600,000 suicide deaths in the United States between 1990 and 2017, researchers noted two spikes in the data that occurred in 1997 and 2007.

Women's suicide rates by poisoning – the leading method among females – had been declining about 3% a year during the late 1980s and early 1990s, researchers said.

But in 1997, one year after approval of the long-acting opioid Oxycontin, women's suicide rates by poisoning began increasing by about 2% a year.

“In the late 1990s, the method women often consider using to attempt to end their life suddenly became much more potent and much more available,” Simon said in a university news release.

Notably, states without prescription drug monitoring programs experienced larger increases in female suicides by poisoning, researchers said.

After controlling for other factors, the researchers concluded that increased availability of opioids and other prescription drugs like benzodiazepines were responsible for driving up women's poisoning suicides between 1997 and 2006.

The other spike in suicide rates occurred in 2007, at the onset of the Great Recession, researchers said.

Rates began to climb across all genders and ethnicities, from 2% annually among Black men and 2.5% annually for white men, to 9% annually for American Indian/Alaskan Native women, researchers found.

Those trends continued long after the recession ended, and strongly paralleled changes in a state's economic conditions. Stagnating wages, higher unemployment and increased poverty all contributed to suicide rates.

These findings, published recently in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior, all point to larger societal influences that can drive suicide risk, researchers concluded.

“Suicide hotline crisis numbers and efforts to help people at the individual level are all amazing and necessary, but our work shows that higher-level, institutional interventions are also critical in addressing this crisis,” Simon said. “Giving a person a job or proper health care can also be a suicide-prevention tool.”

If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, the 988 lifeline offers help.

More information

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have more about suicide.

SOURCE: University of Colorado-Boulder, news release, Feb. 15, 2024

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