Depression and America's Opioid Crisis
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Could depression and other mood disorders have fueled the opioid crisis?


The spiraling abuse of opioids has created a deadly crisis across America. More than 10 million people abused opioids in 2018 and that abuse now costs more than 130 lives every day. It also costs more than $75 billion annually and impacts millions of families and thousands of communities.

    But what’s often overlooked in the discussions about opioid addiction and abuse is that more than 51% of opioid prescriptions are going to people with mood disorders like depression. And that may be creating a lethal concoction that will only make the crisis worse.

    Those prescriptions can lead to addiction amongst the most vulnerable users, and people suffering from depression who can longer obtain legitimate opioid prescriptions or who develop a tolerance to opioids often turn to street prescriptions as well as cheaper and lethal alternatives like heroin and fentanyl.

    Perhaps even worse, the opioid/depression relationship can be a vicious cycle. A 2016 study in the Annals of Family Medicine found that about 10% of Americans who are prescribed opioids developed depression within just 30 days of taking their first prescription. The longer they used opioids, the greater their risk of developing depression became.


A Toxic Relationship

The connection between depression and death by opioids became even more stark when a 2018 study from Purdue University found that every 1% increase in depression diagnoses was associated with a 26% increase in opioid-related deaths. The authors of that study suggested that “people who are depressed are more likely to be prescribed opioids, but also that people who are prescribed opioids are more likely to become depressed. We need to recognize that this is probably a bidirectional relationship."

    And even though people suffering from mood disorders are far more likely to abuse the prescription, or become addicted, they’re still being prescribed at a much higher rate than the rest of the population.

    A 2017 study by the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in New Hapmshire found that nearly 20% of Americans with diagnosed mood disorders use prescription opioids, compared to just 5% of the general population.

    According to the authors of the study “If you want to come up with social policy to address the need to decrease our out-of-control opioid prescribing, this would be the population you want to study, because they’re getting the bulk of the opioids.”