Young women poisoning themselves using painkillers


Those aged 15-24 years old have the highest rates of poisoning by pharmaceuticals in Australia

The majority of cases involve non-opioid analgesics and are the result of intentional self-harm, the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) has found.

Its latest figures reveal an estimated 10,620 cases of hospitalisation involving poisoning of children and young people by pharmaceutical drugs in 2012-13.

Of these, the majority (37%) were caused by non-opioid analgesics, including anti-inflammatories ibuprofen and paracetamol, antipyretics such as aspirin and antirheumatics.

Psychotropic drugs such as tricyclic and tetracyclic antidepressants, antipsychotics and neuroleptics, caused the second highest amount of hospitalisations (30%).

Psychotropic drugs caused the largest proportion of poisoning cases in males (32%), while non-opioid analgesics, antipyretics and antirheumatics were responsible for the highest proportion in females (43%).

Girls most as risk

Approximately 80% of poisoning cases among girls and young women in each age group were the result of intentional self-harm episodes.

In girls aged 15-17 years old, there were 589 cases per 100,000 of poisoning by pharmaceuticals. The majority of these cases – or 540 cases per 100,000 – were the result of intentional self-harm.

Meanwhile, the rate of poisoning by pharmaceuticals among boys aged 15-17 years old was 130 per 100,000 (102 per 100,000 intentional).

While the rate of poisoning was even higher among young women aged 18-24 years, the difference compared with their male counterparts was less 

Among men aged 18-24, 58% of poisoning cases were due to intentional self-harm.

Poisoning for self-harm using psychotropic drugs increased with age for both males and females; the highest case numbers occurred at ages 18–24.

About a fifth (22%) of cases of poisoning by pharmaceuticals were unintentional in nature, mostly involving topical agents (81%).

Deliberately overdosing on medication (self-poisoning) is one of the most common methods of self-harm among young people, according to youth mental health organisation headspace.

Headspace explains that in many cases self-harm is not intended to be fatal, and in many cases, people use self-harm as a coping mechanism, in order to alleviate intense emotional pain or distress.

How pharmacists can help

Pharmacists are well placed to help support those suffering from mental health issues, according to Australia’s leading pharmacy organisations.

They can leverage their position to have opportunistic discussions with consumers and carers in the pharmacy about their mental health, says the Pharmaceutical Society of Australia.

They can also encourage people at risk to seek help and refer them to a GP or appropriate local mental health service.

“The link between pharmacists and intentional self-poisoning by patients using prescription or non-prescription medications is obvious and thereby provides a clear opportunity for suicide risk assessment and mitigation,” say the authors of a joint Canadian-Australian research paper on community pharmacists and mental health.

“Trusted and highly accessible pharmacists can be approached in person or via telephone, without the need for an appointment or payment, for advice and support. For these reasons, pharmacists routinely encounter people with risk factors for suicide and people in crisis, irrespective of medication-related needs,” they write.

“With over 5000 locations Australia-wide, community pharmacy, as part of its extensive primary health care role, is well placed to be involved in the early invention, support, referral and continuity of care of people with mental illness,” says the Pharmacy Guild of Australia in their mental health services framework.

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