Medical examiners label many of the tens of thousands overdose deaths each year as accidents. But a study by a Johns Hopkins School of Medicine researcher finds as many as a third are likely suicides.
The study, done with the assistance of a Utah high school student, was based on a computer program using a kind of artificial intelligence, the Baltimore Sun reports. The information could bring sharper focus to the scope of epidemics of both opioid abuse and suicides.
“If we’re trying to prevent deaths in the community, we have to figure out why people are dying,” said Dr. Paul Nestadt, the Johns Hopkins researcher who was one of the study’s authors.
“If people are dying by accidental overdose, the best interventions — naloxone availability and treatment in the community for addiction — are different from those for suicide, like the availability of hotlines and antidepressants.”
Under the model, the researchers entered information about overdose deaths in Utah from 2012 to 2015 into an algorithm. The data included age, sex, race, history of mental illness, and stressors like job loss. The algorithm combined data to determine the probability that a case was a suicide.
Few overdose cases are labeled suicides because, absent a suicide note, examiners are often unsure of the drug user’s intent. That’s led to overdose cases largely being called accidents or “undetermined.”
Overdoses quadrupled over two decades to 70,000 in 2017, mostly due to opioids that include prescription painkillers and illicit heroin and fentanyl. Suicides have risen by about a quarter to 47,000 in the same time frame.
“There are two epidemics, suicide and opioids,” said Dr. Ian Rockett, who studies the undercounting of suicides. “They tend to be treated separately, when there is considerable overlap.”
U.S. overdose deaths last year likely fell for the first time in nearly three decades, preliminary numbers released in July suggest, but the overdose death rate is still about seven times higher than it was a generation ago.
We’re still in a pretty sad situation that we need to address,” said Rebecca Haffajee, a University of Michigan researcher told the Associated Press.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in July that nearly 68,000 drug overdose deaths were reported last year. The number may go up as more investigations are completed, but the agency expects the tally will end up below 69,000.
Overdose deaths had been climbing each year since 1990, exceeding 70,000 in 2017.