Suicide and opioid overdose deaths both rose in Minnesota in 2017, extending a trend that began in 2000 and reaching record levels, according to data released Monday by state health officials who called it “a worrisome long-term trend.”
Deaths by suicide rose 5 percent, while opioid overdose deaths jumped 12 percent. Deaths from alcohol-related causes declined slightly in 2017, but have also posted a long-term increase, according to the state Department of Health report.
State officials said such deaths are preventable with proper outreach and treatment. Taken together, the deaths have many causes but “a key factor is a lack of social connectedness and opportunity,” said state Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm.
The Minnesota Legislature is considering several proposals this session, including a bill that passed the House Monday in a 94-34 vote, to increase funding for opioid abuse treatment, prevention and other services.
In addition, several communities across the state have increased efforts to screen for people who are at risk for suicide, directing them into treatment and providing follow-up. And 30 communities are tracking alcohol-related incidents, including assault and driving under the influence, to detect restaurants and bars that might be serving customers too much alcohol.
Suicide is the eighth-leading cause of death in Minnesota, accounting for 783 deaths in 2017. The suicide rate among men increased 9 percent, while the rate among women fell 10 percent.
State health officials have set a goal of reducing suicides 20 percent by 2025.
“One of the things we know is that treatment can work and recovery is possible for [people considering] suicide,” said Melissa Heinen, senior suicide prevention epidemiologist at the Health Department.
Sixteen agencies receive grant funding to implement what is known as a Zero Suicide model, which mobilizes all of the resources of a health care organization and its partners to identify individuals at risk.
“Suicidal individuals often fall through the cracks in a sometimes fragmented health care system,” said Laura Heller, a medical social worker at RiverView Health, a hospital and clinic system in Crookston. “It takes a systematic approach to improve quality for these individuals.” That means training everyone, including receptionists, social workers and doctors to spot the warning signs and reach out to those who might need help. It also means working with local schools, police and other community resources.
“It is working with what you have to create your community ... that can save life,” said Darin Prescott, director of community health and clinic CEO for Community Health and Human Services for the Lower Sioux Indian Community in Morton.
The new data on overdose deaths, which rose to 422 in 2017, were top of mind as the Minnesota House of Representatives considered a sweeping package aimed at tackling the state’s opioid epidemic Monday. The proposal would raise $20 million for prevention and treatment by increasing licensing fees on drug manufacturers and add new requirements aimed at curbing prescriptions in cases of acute pain.
Opponents, including those representing the pharmaceutical industry, have argued that the fee increase will raise the cost of prescription drugs for consumers. But supporters say the increase is needed to help fund local and state agencies that now bear the costs of the opioid crisis. Rep. Liz Olson, a lead author of the House proposal, said the data released Monday underscore the urgency of acting on the issue now.
“Even though this crisis started awhile ago, once you prescribe these pills the effects will last for years and years and years,” the Duluth Democrat said. “Unfortunately, we have a ways to go until we really turn the tide on this issue.”
A similar proposal is working its way through the Republican-controlled Senate. Sen. Julie Rosen, R-Vernon Center, said lawmakers must “get this bill completed” and send a message to pharmaceutical companies that “your business practices are not acceptable.” She said she anticipates the bill passing the Senate by a “resounding” vote.
“It sends a signal to the community, to the people who are suffering, to everyone involved that ... we are doing our part,” she said. “We’ve contributed what we can [and] now we are serious about asking everyone else to be at the table and to contribute equally.”
Minnesota’s opioid epidemic has now moved into its third phase, said Nate Wright, who tracks drug overdoses for the Health Department. What began as abuse of prescription painkillers moved into street drugs such as heroin and now increasingly involves synthetic opioids, such as the powerful drug fentanyl.
“Much of the increase we see in the opioid-involved deaths is the synthetics,” Wright said. And, he added, deaths “are occurring in a younger population than we see in the prescription-related deaths.”