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Opioid Deaths Spike Again in NH: How Many are Suicides?

New Hampshire Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Thomas Andrew says the state recorded more than 500 opioid overdose deaths in 2016. (Kay Andrew)
New Hampshire Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Thomas Andrew says the state recorded more than 500 opioid overdose deaths in 2016. (Kay Andrew)
March 6, 2017

CONCORD, N.H. -- New England is in the grips of an opioid drug epidemic, and a medical examiner who's been on the job for two decades says it's hard to separate accidental overdoses from cases of suicide.

Dr. Thomas Andrew has spent much of his medical career calling attention to the issue. He said in the 20 years he has been New Hampshire's Chief Medical Examiner, he has seen overdose deaths increase by 1,000 percent. With so many people dying of opioid overdoses, he said it's hard to determine how many actually intended to take their own lives.

"Last year, [there were] over 500 people - in a state that used to see 40 drug deaths a year,” Andrew said. "How many of those drug deaths are truly accidental, and how many represent intentionally self-destructive acts? It's beyond my ability to tease out. "

As Dr. Andrew put it, he works "at the end of the pipeline" in the epidemic. Opioid overdoses were up 25 percent in New Hampshire in 2016. And unless someone leaves a suicide note or other evidence is found, he said the vast majority of opioid-related deaths are classified as accidental.

Andrew added that New Hampshire ranks close to the bottom among states for access to addiction treatment. He said he thinks it is a factor not only in overdoses, but in addicts' decisions to end their lives.

“Once productive people who find themselves out of control, unable to get the help that they need for various and sundry reasons; and that leads to suicides by other means - whether it's, you know, hanging or gunshot, or what have you,” he said.

Andrew said lawmakers both in New England and at the federal level are starting to pay attention. But for too long, he said opioid addiction was viewed as a problem that happened to "other people."

"If we had that kind of 1,000 percent increase in homicides or traffic deaths, or asthma deaths, or breast cancer, people would be out there marching in the streets,” he said. "Well, they finally are now, regarding these deaths."

Mike Clifford, Public News Service - NH