An abundance of opioid overdose deaths has led to an epidemic around the world. Along with the rest of the globe, there has been a high degree of opioid deaths in Canada. While measures have been taken toward solving this problem, including reducing the number of opioids prescribed in medical settings, the problem is not significantly resolving itself. When prescription opioids are difficult to come by, people often turn to the streets to buy illicit opioids, including fentanyl and heroin. These strong opioids are major culprits in fatal overdoses. It’s not enough to focus on prescription rates, which is an action that isn’t having a significant impact on the problem. A recent study took a look at the problem to address misconceptions and identify patterns related to opioid use and the connection with the Opioid crisis and mental illness. Hopefully, doing so will help us collectively focus on the aspects of the problem that will truly create positive change instead of looking in the wrong directions.
Mental Disorders Associated with Opioid Deaths in Canada
The current study, which was conducted by Alberta Health by reviewing medical examiner data, looked at 653 deaths in Alberta, Canada, in 2017. It helped throw out certain misconceptions that were unsupported by the research. For example, the majority of opioid deaths in Alberta did not result in the homeless population, as many people may assume. Instead, the researchers found that the majority of cases involved Caucasian working men in their late thirties (30s) who died in their own homes.
We should be asking why these men are turning to opioids, resulting in their deaths from overdose. We may see the answer in the results of this study. According to 660 City News, the researchers of this study identified that “83 percent of victims had a history of mental illness, including anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia.” Due to this high percentage, this connection from opioid use to mental health could at least be seen as a primary factor correlated to this problem, if not the only one.
Within this group, the person’s medical examiner case file showed a note about a psychiatric condition or the person’s linked administrative health data showed a diagnosed disorder, including at least one of these:
- An anxiety disorder
- A mood disorder
- A psychotic disorder
This population had a higher rate of mental illness than the general population. Within the same time period of 2017, 81 percent of those who died of opioid overdose in Alberta had a lifetime diagnosis of a mental disorder (anxiety, mood or psychotic) compared to 42 percent of the general population. This information comes from administrative data.
This research is not particularly surprising. Many people experience both a mental disorder and substance use disorder (the diagnosis that encompasses substance abuse and addiction) at the same time, with one worsening the other. Having both is known as co-occurring disorders.
The Problem with Current Opioid Interventions
This recent study shows that a mental disorder is one of the factors that has been associated with opioid deaths in Canada. This is not the only country that has identified this connection between the opioid crisis and mental illness concerns. Research like this supports the idea that current interventions designed to stop overdose deaths will not entirely solve the crisis. That’s because they don’t address this opioid connection to mental health.
For example, cutting opioid prescriptions or giving replacement opioids will not help because these potential solutions don’t address an underlying mental illness. In addition, people can still gain access to dangerous opioids on the street when they lose access through medical means. Similarly, it won’t entirely help to create “safe rooms” as we are seeing in Canada. These sites allow people to use clean supplies and have supervision so they can safely inject themselves. Yet this intervention also does not address the underlying problem of why people are turning to opioids and continuing to use them.
What Is the Solution to the Opioid Crisis and Mental Illness Dilemma?
If over three-quarters of the people dying from opioid deaths in Canada have a history of mental illness, as this study shows, it’s safe to assume that we may be able to help the problem, at least in large part, by focusing on mental health. What we need to realize is that people are self-medicating emotional distress.
What could help, in addition to current interventions? We should be using more measures that focus on mental health as a way to directly target the opioid crisis. What opioid users with mental health concerns need is a medical detox in a hospital to help their bodies and brains adjust to functioning without the use of opioids again. Then, this medical care should be followed by adequate mental health care customized to each person’s mental health diagnosis and specific needs. This method provides a way to treat the individual rather than the symptom, which in this case is the drug use and addiction.
Mental health care should be seen as an integral part of medical care for people who use or are dependent on opioids. We need to address the high percentage of mental disorders in this population instead of continuing to ignore them. If people had better ways of managing their mental disorders, maybe they wouldn’t turn to opioids to help themselves cope.
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