Resources & Education

February 8th, 2015

The Truth About Painkillers and Suicide

Close-up of a sad and depressed womanWhile some have suggested that continued use of painkillers might be a cause for suicide, research indicates that the two are only indirectly linked. Prescription painkillers, which are too often misused and abused, may lead to an accidental overdose death. In addition, while the most common method of suicide in the United States is firearms, among women specifically, the most common method of suicide involves poisonous substances, including medications. While painkillers could be a cause for accidental death, or a chosen method of suicide, they are not a known direct risk factor.

According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, risk factors are defined as characteristics or conditions that increase the chance that a person may try to take his/her own life. The risk factors for suicide can be broken down into three categories:

Health Factors

  • Mental health conditions such as depression or bipolar disorder
  • Substance abuse disorders
  • Serious or chronic health conditions
  • Chronic pain

Environmental Factors

  • Exposure to another person’s suicide
  • Access to lethal means such as firearms
  • Prolonged stress factors such harassment
  • Stressful life events such as a death or divorce

Historical Factors

  • Previous suicide attempts
  • Family history of suicide attempts

Prescription painkillers are not included in this list, but they are indirectly linked to three of these suicide risk factors:

Prescription painkillers such as opioids work by binding to receptors in the brain to decrease the perception of pain. Due to the impact that they can have on reducing feelings of pain, opioids are one of the most commonly abused classes of drugs, and recent studies have indicated that prolonged use of painkillers can lead to an increased likelihood for depression.

Living with Chronic Pain
Individuals with serious medical conditions such as cancer or lupus may be at an increased risk for suicide. Living with chronic pain can lead to increased psychological states of hopelessness, and suicide may begin to feel like a means to escape. For thousands of Americans, painkillers can be safely used to manage acute or ongoing pain, however, for others, living with chronic pain becomes a suicidal risk factor, and painkillers, a dangerous complication.

Substance Abuse Disorders
Of those who die by suicide, over 90 percent are previously diagnosed with a mental health disorder, such as substance abuse. It is estimated that 25 percent of people currently utilizing prescribed painkillers, are addicted. Therefore, statistically, some who are abusing prescription painkillers do so due to a mental health disorder which is a known risk factor for suicide and a link to opioids.

There is a potentially deadly triangle that surrounds suicide, with each point linked to painkillers: depression, substance abuse, and chronic pain. While all three of these elements are independent risk factors for suicide, that is not to say that the use of painkillers is intrinsically a cause of suicide. While this is an important clarification, those who utilize prescription painkillers should be closely monitored for both abuse of their medication, and suicidal risk factors, to ensure that the two are not converging into a deadly scenario.

If you have questions or want help for you or a loved one, please call our HOPE line at (855) 969-HOPE or call Horizon Health Services in Western New York at (716) 831-1800.

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