April 21, 2022 – Suicides and drug overdoses can happen in clusters when people become desensitized to death, says Connery, who’s also the clinical director of McLean Hospital’s Division of Alcohol, Drugs and Addiction in Belmont, MA.

For example, when someone dies by suicide, it increases the risk that their peers will do the same thing because of exposure to it. This is especially true when other members of the group are faced with similar stressors like war, community violence, poverty, and exclusion.

Accurate real-time surveillance data would help identify people at risk, Connery says.

“We need to stop working in silos, because suicides and overdoses are related issues with similar risk factors, and in many cases, prevention may need to be overlapping,” she says.

Jill Harkavy-Friedman, PhD, who leads the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s research grant program, believes the increase in overdose deaths is largely due to fentanyl, a highly toxic substance that is being used to cut heroin and cocaine. She agrees that a portion of the 100,000 drug deaths in 2020 may have been intentional but says suicides likely did decrease overall due to increased attention to mental health.

“We encouraged people to seek help when they were in distress, and it seems like they were listening,” she says.

Harkavy-Friedman also notes that the numbers were already going down in 2019, partially because we’re more open to having conversations about suicide, a subject that was once off limits.

“We’re more open to discussing it in a way that makes people feel less alone,” she says. 


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