By Karen Billing
For the second year in a row deaths due to suicide and prescription drug overdoses were at record highs in San Diego County in 2012, according to a report released by the San Diego County Medical Examiner on July 23.
The county recorded a record number of suicides, 413, and a suicide rate that rose for the sixth year in a row. The suicide rate is 13.1 per 100,000 people — the highest the county has ever recorded was in 1993 when the suicide rate was 14.5. The disturbing trend of prescription drug-related deaths also continued to rise, from 267 in 2011 to 269 in 2012.
“Our office investigates every non-natural death in San Diego and, tragically, many of these deaths are preventable,” Chief Deputy Medical Examiner Dr. Jonathan Lucas said in a statement. “The report reveals some of the serious issues and behaviors affecting San Diego County residents and visitors.”
Excluding alcohol, methamphetamine is still the number one cause of drug-related deaths for the population as a whole. Meth was linked to 142 deaths in 2012 and was the most common substance in accidental overdose deaths between ages 40 and 69 years old.
The most common drug in accidental overdoses in people ages 20 to 29 is heroin, a drug that has maintained a yearly increase since 2007.
Tom Lenox, supervisory special agent with the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), said there is a link between prescription drugs and the increase in heroin deaths.
“When people have an inability to get access to painkillers, they are turning to heroin as a substitute. We’re seeing that everywhere,” Lenox said.
Lenox said when users are unable to access painkillers, they use the cheaper illegal drug heroin and they often do not know the purity of the drug or how much to take and they overdose
After cocaine, prescription drugs diazepam (brand name Valium), methadone, oxycodone, hydrocodone and diphenhydramine (brand name Benadryl, Sominex) were among the top 10 drugs in overdose deaths.
Alprazolam (brand name Xanax) was among the top three most common drug/medications found in those under age 40 — it had a sudden increase in frequency in 2011 that remained common in 2012, and attributed to 55 deaths.
Lenox said the increase in prescription drug deaths is often a result of people taking pills in combination with each other, with alcohol or with other illegal drugs.
“It is a priority for the DEA right now,” Lenox said. “We’re focused on trying to get people aware of the dangers that these drugs cause and, hopefully, educate them that these drugs are designed for a specific medical use, not for recreational use… They’re not a safe drug. There’s a misconception that because they’re prescribed by a doctor that they’re safer than illegal drugs.”
Lenox said people get their hands on the drugs through medicine cabinets or “doctor shopping” (getting multiple prescriptions from multiple doctors) or taking advantage of the proximity to Mexico to walk across the border and purchase pills for either personal use or to sell them.