WASHINGTON -- It's long been suspected that the nation's unprecedented drug overdose epidemic and sharply rising suicide rates are linked.
Now health researchers are finding concrete evidence that the two preventable causes of death -- which are among the top 10 in the United States -- are intrinsically related: People with an opioid addiction are at much higher risk for suicide than the rest of the population; and opioid use was a contributing factor in more than 40% of all suicide and overdose deaths in 2017, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Suicide prevention advocates have been pushing the addiction treatment community to address the substantial overlap by evaluating all patients for suicide risk and employing preventive techniques for those who need it.
In June, that's slated to happen.
New guidelines recommended by the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention will become facilities' minimum standard of care for patients in both inpatient and outpatient addiction treatment, said Michael Johnson, managing director for the Commission on Accreditation of Rehabilitation Facilities, which oversees opioid treatment programs and other rehabilitation services.
"Right now, there's no real standards for suicide prevention in addiction treatment programs," he said. "We want to change that."
Some drug treatment programs already screen patients for suicide and offer suicide prevention therapies. Soon, all treatment programs will have to meet the standard to maintain their accreditation from the Commission on Accreditation of Rehabilitation Facilities.
According to the National Action Alliance, other health care organizations that have used its suicide prevention approach saw a 60% to 80% reduction in deaths.
Michael Hogan, a behavioral health consultant who has headed mental health agencies in Connecticut, New York and Ohio, said the guidelines have the potential to save thousands of lives. By his estimate, at least 7,000 people in the care of publicly funded behavioral health programs die by suicide each year.
Nationwide, more than 47,000 Americans died by suicide in 2017 and more than 70,000 died from a drug overdose, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.