From Our 2011 Archives

ER Visits for Drug-Related Suicide Attempts Up in Men

Increase Related to Use of Pain Medication, Antidepressants, Anti-anxiety and Insomnia Pills

By Denise Mann
WebMD Health News

Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

June 17, 2011 -- New data highlight a 55% increase in emergency room visits for drug-related suicide attempts among men aged 21 to 34 from 2005 to 2009.

"This study shows an increase in the number of people using prescription medications for suicide attempts," says researcher Peter J. Delany, PhD, director of the Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) in Rockville, Md. "This is not showing an increase in suicide attempts, just an increase in emergency room visits for drug-related suicide attempts."

There were 77,971 ER visits for drug-related suicide attempts by males of all ages in 2009.

In 2005, there were 19,024 ER visits for drug-related suicide attempts among men aged 21 to 34. That number jumped to 29,407 visits in 2009, according to a new SAMHSA report.

The number of ER visits for suicide attempts involving antidepressants increased by 155% among men aged 21 to 34, from 1,519 in 2005 to 3,876 in 2009. The number of ER visits for suicide attempts involving anti-anxiety and insomnia medications increased by 93.4% from 2005 to 2009, the data show.

ER visits for suicide attempts among males aged 35 to 49 that involved narcotic pain relievers nearly doubled from 2005 to 2009, and these numbers almost tripled among men aged 50 and older, the study showed.

Researchers classified the ER visits as a drug-related suicide attempt if the hospital ER staff labeled it as a suicide attempt, and the person was admitted for a drug-related suicide attempt, not an unintentional overdose, and the visit involved a drug as either the direct cause of the ER visit or as a contributing factor.

There have been several high-profile deaths in the media where the cause of death or injury is an accidental overdose, suicide attempt, or suicide, so the line can sometimes be blurred.

"There is a difference between taking two Xanax and drinking wine and taking 50 Xanax," Delany says.

Prescription Drug Abuse Behind Uptick

The article highlights the growing problem of prescription drug abuse of painkillers, antidepressants, anti-anxiety drugs, and sleep aids, he says.

"It is becoming very pervasive," he says.

"These drugs are effective, important treatments for pain, insomnia, and/or depression, so we don't want to throw the baby out with bath water," Delaney says. But "we need to restrict access to prescription drugs, and keep them in safe, restricted places in homes." The latter helps prevent the medications from falling into the wrong hands.

"If you make it harder to commit suicide, it's actually harder," he says.

Be alert to suicide warning signs such as withdrawal from others, talking about death and dying, anxiety, agitation, rapid mood changes, and increasing use of alcohol or drugs, he says.

"If you see any of these signs, try to get the person help, and if you believe them to be a danger to themselves, call 911," he says. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800-273-TALK) is a free 24-hour hotline for people who are at risk of suicide.

Suicides Also Increasing

Paula J. Clayton, MD, the medical director of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention in New York City, says that the number of suicides is on the rise along with prescription drug dependence, creating a perfect storm.

The new study is a "wake-up call to physicians who are writing the prescription that we need to give them less pills per prescription," she says. Screening people for history or risk of abuse, dependence, depression, and alcohol use is also important when prescribing these medications.

SOURCES: Paula J. Clayton, MD, medical director, American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, New York.Peter J. Delany, PhD, director, Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality, SAMHSA, Rockville, Md.SAMSHA, The Dawn Report. ©2011 WebMD, LLC. All Rights Reserved.