More Americans are now dying from suicide and drug overdoses combined than from diabetes, a new report reveals.
In 2016, there were 29 deaths from suicide or drug overdose per 100,000 Americans, compared to just under 25 deaths per 100,000 from diabetes. That was up from just two years before, when death rates from the two causes were comparable, the researchers said.
The shift is striking, said Ian Rockett, the lead author of the report and a professor emeritus of epidemiology at West Virginia University.
"Deaths from suicide and drug overdose are rising, and they happen at a younger age than deaths from diabetes," Rockett pointed out.
He said the findings help illustrate the scope of not only the nation's opioid epidemic -- but its rising rate of suicide.
Diabetes is a common chronic disease, and stands as the seventh-leading cause of death in the United States. If more Americans are now dying from suicide and drug overdose, that's a wake-up call, according to Rockett.
He and his colleagues argue for a new way of seeing drug overdose deaths: Those deaths, they say, should be considered deaths by "self-injury," just as suicide is.
For one, some drug overdose deaths are intentional -- but it's not clear how many. In the absence of a suicide note, it's difficult for coroners to determine intent, Rockett said.
Beyond that, even when the deceased did not intend to take a lethal drug dose, that death can still be seen as the result of self-injury, according to Rockett.
"These deaths aren't really accidents," he said. "They're self-harm."
The point, Rockett stressed, is not to "blame the victims."
Instead, he said, the point is to highlight the fact that people who die from suicide or drug overdose often have similar histories -- including trauma, untreated depression and a lack of social support.
"We're trying to point out that this is an even bigger problem than we realize," Rockett said.
The national suicide rate rose by 24 percent between 1999 and 2014 -- from 10.5 deaths per 100,000 people to 13 per 100,000, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Meanwhile, the opioid toll keeps growing. Recent research has found a leveling off in Americans' abuse of prescription opioid painkillers, like Vicodin, OxyContin and codeine. But abuse of illegal opioids is rising. That includes heroin and illicitly made fentanyl, a synthetic opioid.