New study led by public health researcher finds ‘suicides by drugs’ profoundly undercounted in the United States

Stories | WVU Today | West Virginia University

According to the Centers
for Disease Control and Prevention, the suicide rate in the United States
increased by 34 percent between 2000 and 2016. While that rate seems high, a team
of researchers led by a West Virginia University faculty member believes it is
seriously underestimated.

A new study suggests that
the difference may be due to drug intoxication suicides being misclassified. Ian Rockett, professor of Epidemiology in WVU’s
School of Public Health,
spearheaded the study conducted by an international team of renowned
epidemiologists, psychiatrists, emergency physicians and a chief medical
examiner.

“There is a serious
problem of suicide undercounting in the United States, which stems from the
opioid epidemic and under-resourcing of emergency healthcare and death
investigation systems,” Rockett said. “Our analysis of data from the CDC’s
National Violent Death Reporting System shows detection of drug intoxication suicides
is highly dependent upon authenticated suicide notes and psychiatric histories.
This information is often minimal or nonexistent, which impedes both suicide
understanding and prevention.”

The study, “Discerning Suicide in Drug Intoxication Deaths: Paucity and
Primacy of Suicide Notes and Psychiatric History,” was released today by PLOS ONE, an
open-access journal published by the Public Library of Science.

The researchers claim that
suicide notes and psychiatric history, including a prior suicide attempt or
diagnosed depression, are much more important in properly identifying drug
suicides than suicides completed by more violent and obvious methods, like
shooting or hanging. However, the study revealed that such evidence is absent
in two-thirds of known suicide cases and in three-quarters of undetermined
death cases, a comparison group. This lack of evidence often leads to suicides
being classified as undetermined or even accidental and ultimately inhibits the
detection of drug suicides.

The nation’s growing
opioid epidemic, coupled with the under-resourcing of emergency healthcare and
death investigation systems, is exacerbating problems with suicide accounting,
the researchers report.

“Without this …

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