Should Overdoses Be Treated as Attempted Suicide?

The opioid epidemic continues to take lives every single day throughout the United States. More effort is needed to increase community awareness campaigns and improve strategies at the government level to help reverse the ongoing drug addiction crisis centered around opiates like heroin, fentanyl, and prescription pain pills. There have been measures put into place to fight the epidemic such as stricter guidelines for prescribing opiate-based medication along with increased funding for state-sponsored rehab programs. New legislation in some states has now created a debate about whether drug overdoses should be considered a voluntary act to end one’s life.

Overdose attempted suicide

Overdoses and Suicide

We are becoming more informed about the link between overdoses and suicide. According to the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM), accidental drug overdose deaths and suicide have increased at an extreme rate.

“In the United States, deaths due to suicide and unintentional overdose pose a major, and growing public health concern. The combined number of deaths among Americans from suicide and unintentional overdose increased from 41,364 in 2000 to 110,749 in 2017 and has exceeded the number of deaths from diabetes since 2010… both suicide and unintentional overdose have been the focus of large-scale prevention efforts, such as the National Strategy for Suicide Prevention and the State Targeted Response to the Opioid Crisis grant program of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.” (NEJM).

The researchers who are investigating the links between drug overdose and suicide have learned that both problems have connections with pain and opioid use. The neurocircuitry in the human brain that activates neurotransmitters linked to pleasure and reward is affected by pain. The same is true for people who are addicted to opioids. Persons with Opioid Use Disorder (OUD), are also more prone to dangerous behavior because of the dysfunction of their neurocircuitry and may consider suicide as a way out of their addictions.

“The distinction between unintentional and volitional deaths may be blurred among people with OUD, whose motivation to live might be eroded by addiction. Such erosion can have a range of effects, from engagement in increasingly risky behaviors despite a lack of conscious suicidal intent to frank suicidal ideation and intent. This entire spectrum can lead to opioid-overdose deaths, but little attention has been given to its contribution to overdose mortality” (NEJM).

Drug Overdoses and Mandatory Holds

Several states are now considering implementing laws for mandatory holds and commitment time to be standard if a person is at risk for suicide due to a drug overdose. All states have laws that can legally commit a person to be held in a psychiatric facility if he or she is at risk for suicide or harming others. What some professionals are suggesting is that the same policies be in place for people with severe substance abuse histories, particularly with drugs that a person can easily overdose on such as heroin and other powerful opioids. Family members are often fear that their relative who is addicted to drugs will not live to the end of the week or day because it is apparent that their brain function and normal decision making has been directly impaired by drug use.

Radical changes need to occur to make any difference in the number of people addicted to drugs that die from accidental overdoses. It is encouraging that public officials and well-respected medical journals are studying internal and external influences that could contribute to preventing suicide as well as linking the opioid addiction crisis to help create better laws and increase awareness about the substance abuse problem.

Garden State Treatment Center is a dual diagnosis addiction treatment facility that has pulled hundreds of men, women, and families from despair and into lasting recovery.