Researchers look at link between suicide, opioid prescription changes

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Researchers at the University of Alabama at Birmingham are looking into whether there is a link between suicides and changes in opioid prescriptions.

By surveying family members of patients who died by suicide after a change in their prescription pain medications, the researchers hope to explain a pattern developed since 2016, said UAB’s Stefan Kertesz, M.D.

Between 1999 and 2017, suicide rates have risen 33 percent, researchers said. Currently, suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States.

The study, “Clinical contexts of suicide following opioid transitions,” will reach out to suicide victims’ family members and assess whether they would be willing to participate in future research.

“These events are tragic. Several federal agencies have acknowledged a link between suicide and changes in opioid prescriptions, but no really one understands what is happening,” Kertesz said. “We don’t know why some people wind up dead, and others don’t, and that’s why research is needed.”

Co-researcher Allyson Varley, Ph.D., with the UAB Center for Addiction and Pain Prevention and Intervention, said the only way to prevent suicide loss is to understand the underlying issues in that loss.

“The problem is there is no official agency attempting to capture these events, and that means they are incredibly hard to study,” Varley said.

The researchers have collaborated with patients, family members, and experts across the county to create a national survey for the suicide victim’s family members. The survey takes about 15 to 20 minutes to complete online or on the telephone and will assess the family members’ relationship with the victim and what they think happened.

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