With depression affecting about 14.8 million Americans, it is not surprising that many people in the U.S. experience suicidal thoughts. Everyday about 105 Americans die by suicide, a number that could be significantly reduced if more people could be provided with treatment and effective solutions for their illness. A new study has looked into possible treatment methods specifically for people suffering from suicidal thoughts.
Researchers provided a number of suicidal patients with low doses of the drug buprenorphine, commonly used to treat heroin addiction, and found that the patients reported fewer suicidal thoughts. While more research needs to be done to determine the full extent of its effectiveness, this drug could potentially provide people with a fast-acting solution when suicidal thoughts become very severe.
Buprenorphine as a Non-Addictive Opioid
In 2013, 9 million adults in the U.S. reported having suicidal thoughts sometime in the year about 1.3 million people attempted to take their own life according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While medications like antidepressants and anti-psychotic drugs can be effective, they can often take weeks or even months to begin working. Researchers focused on preventing suicide are becoming interested in drugs that treat physical pain like opioids because they can also have an effect on emotional pain.
Drugs like these mimic natural brain chemicals which are released when we feel physical pain or social rejection. The problem with opioid drugs is that they are highly addictive and there is an increased danger of addiction in patients that are dealing with a mental illness. The possibility of developing a dual disorder is very strong in the case of opioid drugs combined with depression.
However, a drug like buprenorphine has weaker effects than real opioids and is often used to treat people with a heroin addiction. The drug can relieve emotional pain but it does not have the same properties as a seriously addictive opioid drug because it produces a “ceiling effect”. This means that at moderate doses the effects do not continue to increase with a higher dose but level off which prevents misuse or dependency.
Results of the Study
The study was led by a neuroscientist at Washington State University and researchers who gave very low doses of buprenorphine to 40 people who were thought to be severely suicidal. Another group of suicidal patients were given a placebo as the control group. All the patients later completed a survey designed to measure suicidal thoughts called the Beck Scale for Suicide Ideation. After two weeks, those receiving a regular dose of buprenorphine scored lower on the test meaning they were less suicidal than the group receiving a placebo. The same improvements persisted after they were tested again two weeks later. Patients who were also taking antidepressants for borderline personality disorder saw improvement through buprenorphine and all patients who received the drug did not suffer from withdrawal afterward.
Using opioids to treat depression is not a new idea but because so much is known now about the addictive nature of these kinds of drugs, people have steered clear of painkillers as a solution. The researchers in this particular study chose buprenorphine because it is much less addictive and is used primarily to treat addiction. They also provided very low doses of the drug to their patients to prevent any possibility of dependence, tolerance or withdrawal. Since buprenorphine is already available for opiate addicts, technically doctors could also prescribe the drug for depression or suicidal thoughts but there may be opposition from the FDA. The drug needs to be administered first in much larger studies to confirm the findings of this original research but if it shows potential, doctors can eventually prescribe it to patients.