New Data: Spike in Suicide by Overdose in Key Populations

suicide by overdose in key populations

There’s good news and bad news. 

The good news: In recent years, the overall rate of suicide by overdose in the U.S. has gone down.

The bad news: For certain subgroups of the population, the rate of suicide by intentional drug overdose has gone up dramatically.

Here’s what researchers discovered…

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Two Decades of Decline in Suicide by Overdose

suicide by overdoseInvestigators at the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) looked at overdose deaths between 2001 and 2019 recorded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). They noted the overdoses classified as “intentional” and analyzed this data by sex, age, and race, as well as the month and day of the week the overdose occurred. 

They used these numbers to calculate how many intentional suicide by overdose deaths occurred per 100,000 people. And they discovered that intentional overdose deaths in general have declined in recent years:

  • Between 2015 and 2019, suicide by overdose in women dropped from 1.7 to 1.5 per 100,000 people
  • Between 2012 and 2019, suicide by overdose in men dropped from 1.6 to 1.2 per 100,000 people

But…

Statistically Significant Spikes in Suicide by Overdose

Intentional overdose deaths for certain segments of the population have increased in recent years:

  • Young men ages 15-24 –Between 2015 and 2019, the rate increased from 0.6 to 0.8
  • Young women ages 15-24 –Between 2014 and 2019, the rate increased from 0.6 to 1.0
  • Older men ages 75-84–Between 2001 and 2019, the rate more than doubled, from 0.7 to 1.6
  • Older women ages 75-84 –This rate also more than doubled between 2001 and 2019, from 0.8 to 1.7
  • Non-Hispanic Black women–Between 2013 and 2019, the rate increased from 0.4 to 0.7

(All rates are per 100,000 people.)

The study also revealed when intentional overdoses were most likely to occur:

  • The rates were highest on Mondays and lowest on the weekend.
  • The rates were highest in late spring and summer and lowest in December.

Limitations

While this research is alarming, the data collected did not allow NIDA to evaluate for other potential factors that are known to increase a person’s risk of suicidal ideation, such as mental health symptoms and marginalized identities, including socioeconomic demographics, sexuality, and gender identity.

What About Accidental Overdoses?

Of course, this data analysis only covers a fraction of the overall drug overdoses in the U.S. If we consider accidental and intentional overdoses, the recent numbers are staggering. 

In 2020, nearly 92,000 people died from drug overdoses. Between 5 and 7 percent of these deaths are recorded as intentional suicide by overdose. But the actual percentage may be higher since it can be difficult to determine if deaths by overdose were intentional or not.

Back to the good news. Despite the rise in overdose deaths we’ve seen in recent years (the 2020 rate is five times the rate of overdose deaths in 1999), the overall rate of intentional overdoses has declined. 

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Why These Numbers Matter

suicide by overdoseWhat can we do with these statistics? Is there a practical application to all this number crunching?

Researchers say: yes.

Nora Volkow, M.D., senior author on the study and director of NIDA, explains:

The distinction between accidental and intentional overdose has important clinical implications, as we must implement strategies for preventing both. To do so requires that we screen for suicidality among individuals who use opioids or other drugs, and that we provide treatment and support for those who need it, both for mental illnesses and for substance use disorders.

What About the Risk Among Specific Populations?

Emily Einstein, PhD, study author and chief of NIDA’s Science Policy Branch, notes “This research underscores the importance of external support structures and environmental factors in determining a person’s suicide risk.”

And the Increase in Suicide by Overdose at Specific Times?

Einstein points out that these numbers tell us, “The risk of intentional overdoses, and suicide risk in general, is not static. This is crucial for clinicians to keep in mind, as they may need to assess patients’ suicide risk frequently rather than at one point in time.”

What Do These Numbers Mean for Me Personally?

This entire data-set can prove helpful to all of us.

Einstein adds, “It is also important for friends and family members of people who may be at an increased risk of suicide, and for those people themselves, so that they can be aware of the greatest periods of risk and seek help when needed.”

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