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Suicide Attempt Risk Doubles in Children if Parent Uses Opioids

May 29, 2019

Opioid use by a parent doubles the risk of a suicide attempt in children, according to a study published online in JAMA Psychiatry.

Over the past 15 years, the suicide rate among young people in the United States has increased dramatically, researchers pointed out, as has opioid use among adults.

“Until now, there has been little focus on the association between the increase in opioid use among adults and the risk of suicidal behavior by their children,” said study senior author Robert D. Gibbons, PhD, a biostatistics professor and director of the Center for Health Statistics at the University of Chicago in Illinois. “We theorized such a link was plausible because parental substance abuse is a known risk factor for suicide attempts by their children. In addition, depression and suicide attempts by parents—which are known to be related to suicidal behavior in their offspring—are more common among adults who abuse opioids.”

Substance Abuse, Self-Harm Predict Suicide Attempt in High-Risk Teens

Researchers analyzed data for more than 240,000 parents between 2010 and 2016, half of whom had filled opioid prescriptions for at least 1 year. They also looked at suicide attempts for 330,000 of the parents’ children, ages 10 to 19, over the 6-year period.

Among children whose parents used opioids, 0.37% attempted suicide, the study found. The attempted suicide rate among children whose parents did not use opioids was 0.14%. The findings remained statistically significant even after researchers adjusted for child age and sex, depression or substance use disorder in the child or parent, and history of a suicide attempt in a parent.

“The epidemics of adult opiate abuse and child suicidal behavior appear to be linked, and the disturbing upward trends in mortality due to opiates and due to child suicide may have common roots,” said study author David A. Brent, MD, psychiatrist and chair of suicide studies at the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania.

The care of families with a parent who use opioids, researchers advised, should include mental health screening of their children.

—Jolynn Tumolo


Brent DA, Hur K, Gibbons RD. Association between parental medical claims for opioid prescriptions and risk of suicide attempt by their children. JAMA Psychiatry. 2019 May 22;[Epub ahead of print].

Rubin G. Risk of suicide attempt by children doubles if parent uses opioids [press release]. Chicago, Illinois: The University of Chicago Medicine; May 21, 2019.

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