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Psychological Variables Potentially Implicated in Opioid-Related Mortality as Observed in Clinical Practice

Authors

  • Steven D. Passik PhD,

    Corresponding author
    1. Department of Psychiatry and Anesthesiology, Vanderbilt University Medical Center, Psychosomatic Medicine, Nashville, Tennessee
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  • Amy Lowery PhD

    1. Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, New York, New York, USA
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Steven D. Passik, PhD, Department of Psychiatry and Anesthesiology, Vanderbilt University Medical Center, Psychosomatic Medicine, 1103 Oxford House, Nashville, TN 37232, USA. Tel: 615-875-4893; Fax: 615-875-3450; E-mail: steven.d.passik@vanderbilt.edu.

Abstract

Opioid-related deaths in the United States have become a public health problem, with accidental and unintended overdoses being especially troubling. Screening for psychological risk factors is an important first step in safeguarding against nonadherence practices and identifying patients who may be vulnerable to the risks associated with opioid therapy. Validated screening instruments can aid in this attempt as a complementary tool to clinicians' assessments. A structured screening is imperative as part of an assessment, as clinician judgment is not the most reliable method of identifying nonadherence. As a complement to formal screening, we present for discussion and possible future study certain psychological variables observed during years of clinical practice that may be linked to medication nonadherence and accidental overdose. These variables include catastrophizing, fear, impulsivity, attention deficit disorders, existential distress, and certain personality disorders. In our experience, chronic pain patients with dual diagnoses may become “chemical copers” as a way of coping with their negative emotion. For these patients, times of stress could lead to accidental overdose. Behavioral, cognitive-behavioral (acceptance and commitment, dialectical behavior), existential (meaning-centered, dignity), and psychotropic therapies have been effective in treating these high-risk comorbidities, while managing expectations of pain relief appears key to preventing accidental overdose.

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