Over half of all opioid prescriptions go to people with mood disorders

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Mood disorders like anxiety and depression are well-known to face higher risks of substance abuse and addiction. This hasn’t stopped doctors across the United States from prescribing potentially addictive opioids to people struggling with these types of mental health problems, according to a new report raising questions about how medical professionals are responding to the opioid crises in America.

The analysis of data collected from 2011 and 2013 showed that more than half (51%) of all opioid prescriptions in the US are given to people who were experiencing issues with anxiety, depression, and other mood disorders at the time.

“We’re handing this stuff out like candy,” said Dr. Brian Sites, of Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, the senior author of the study. He cites the more than quadruple increase in opioid prescribing between 1999 and 2015 to show just how widespread the problem is. During that same period, over 183,000 people died from overdoses related to prescription opioids, according to the CDC.

While Sites is hesitant to leap to saying people with mood disorders are being overprescribed opioids, he believes more research into this phenomenon could provide a better understanding of the opioid crisis.

“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, and then they are known to be at higher risk for the bad stuff,” he said.

The findings published in the Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine are based on data collected from a U.S health survey of 51,000 adults.

Based on the data, the team says approximately 19 percent of Americans with mood disorders are prescribed opioids, compared to 5 percent of the general population. The significant variance was still present after adjusting for factors like physical health, level of pain, age, sex, and race.

The team says this suggests approximately 51% of all opioid prescriptions in the U.S. are given to people with mood disorders, accounting for 60 million prescriptions a year.

The researchers could not explain why such a high amount of prescriptions are going to people with mood disorders. Sites believes it could be possible that people with mood disorders respond differently to pain, based on past research indicating patients with depression are at a higher risk for developing chronic pain. Another possible explanation might be that physicians are more sympathetic to patients with mood disorders, making them more likely to prescribe opioids.

Whatever the cause may be, Sites says the findings raise concerns about the potential for overprescribing potentially dangerous drugs to a group known to be vulnerable to addiction.

“We need to understand if this massive prescribing level is appropriate in actually providing benefit commensurate with the risk,” concludes Sites.

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