A recent report published in the Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine reveals that patients struggling with two of the most common mental disorders are also more prone to take opioid medications. Researchers at Dartmouth and the University of Michigan have discovered that anxiety and depression patients receive more painkillers than others at more than triple the rate.
According to the study, there are 38.6 million people who have been diagnosed with anxiety or depression in the United States, and of those people, 7.2 million are prescribed painkillers. These prescriptions are often for some type of physical pain, but the researchers point out that the pain may be made worse by the mental illness.
For instance, “Pain that you may report as two out of 10, someone with mental health disorders – depression, anxiety – may report as a 10 out of 10,” explained Brian Sites, a professor anesthesiology and orthopedics at Dartmouth’s Geisel School of Medicine. And this is likely because the anxiety or depression make it difficult for the person to fight off pain, instead they oftentimes have the pain incorporated into their mental illness, making it much less manageable than it would be for someone with no history or mental illness.
It is also noted that sometimes the euphoric effects of painkillers can help reduce the anxiety and depression the patient is feeling, making it more advantageous for them to continue using the drug. This information helps to shape the way we look at the prescription painkiller problem, because the more that is known about why these pills are prescribed so often, the more something can be done about it. For example, many people with anxiety and depression go to their general practitioners for treatment, however these doctors may not be educated in the evolving world of opioid misuse and abuse. So, when the patient complains of a pain and enjoys the effects the painkillers have on their mental illness, the doctors may not be aware that they are witnessing the beginning of an addiction.
Doctors may find themselves over-prescribing because they are only trying to help their patient, which could be part of the explanation for the statistics showing that more than 18% of people with mental illness have prescriptions for painkillers. By comparison, only 5% of adults with no mental illness had prescriptions for narcotics.
From an intervention perspective, this shines a light on at least two areas where early intervention and prevention measures can help save lives. Finding other ways to treat the pain associated with anxiety and depression could be a great way avoid more serious addiction problems, as well as continuing to push for greater education for doctors so they curb the over-prescribing tendencies, especially to patients with mental health issues.