Overdose and Suicide: How do we categorize tragic deaths?

This week is National Suicide Prevention Week. In recent years, awareness about suicide has increased, but there are still so many questions surrounding this type of death, especially as it relates to drug use and overdoses.

Overdose or Suicide?

Losing someone who has overdosed leaves us with so many questions. How could this happen? What did I miss? Did they do it on purpose? In the early stages of grief, we find ourselves obsessed with finding the answers, investigating the lives of our loved one until we can hardly bear to see what we find. And ultimately, we rarely get the answers we seek. And the answers don’t change the most important thing: that person is not coming back to us.

In the case of overdose, the question of suicide almost always arises. Recently, people in the fields of public health and addiction treatment and research have started asking are any overdoses accidental? Should they be lumped into the category of suicide rather than separated?

An Economics professor at Princeton says that overdoses and suicide are both “deaths of despair” and that overdoses are “suicides in one form or another” [1]. His reasoning, outside of economic factors like marriage and labor statistics, is that the same issue lies behind both deaths: hopelessness.

But what about the other side? Today, it’s hard to tell what’s actually in a pill bought on the black market. You may think you’re buying Percocet, but it could be laced with Fentanyl. If someone dies because of this, it isn’t necessarily suicide. That person might have a level of hopelessness due to their addiction, but it doesn’t mean they wanted to end their life over it. They could have been unaware of the actual toxicity of that batch of drugs.

The Real Issue

The real answer is that in most overdose cases, we will never know the answer. Fentanyl in a toxicology report doesn’t automatically mean the overdose was accidental. You would have to know that the person taking the drug was unaware of the Fentanyl. Some overdose cases are probably seen as accidental when it’s actually a convenient solution for someone already considering suicide. There’s also the issue of how relapse plays into overdoses. During periods of sobriety, a person’s tolerance to a drug lowers. If they relapse and use the same amount they used before sobriety, it can kill them. The scenarios are endless and unique, like every individual life behind the startling statistics about suicide rates and the opioid epidemic.

So where does that leave us? One of the most common risk factors for suicide is substance abuse. The desire and need to escape pain are often indicators that someone may eventually want to rid themselves of that pain forever. Substance use disorders are often rooted in trauma and emotional pain. These two things are also reasons so many people choose to take their own lives. Does it matter how we categorize the deaths? Overdose? Suicide? Intentional? Unintentional? There’s an underlying issue that’s much more important. Our society needs to prioritize mental and behavioral health if we are going to see a change in overdose and/or suicide death rates.

What You Can Do

We cannot change the past or raise the dead, but we can work toward a better, healthier future. If you think someone you know or love might be battling suicidal thoughts or desires, ask them about it. It feels counter intuitive, like something we should avoid. But bringing it out into the open can actually make a person feel relieved. It takes away the burden of secrecy and shame. It can allow you to get them the help they need.

If YOU are struggling, know that there is help available. Whether you believe it or not, you matter! God has something beautiful waiting for you on the other side of the darkness. Come into the light.


Call our hope line if you need treatment for a substance use disorder: 1-855-TND-HOPE (1-855-863-4673).

Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255)

Text the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741

Click the link below to find other mental health resources.


[1] https://www.thedailybeast.com/are-fatal-overdoses-a-form-of-suicide

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