PENSACOLA, Fla. (WRKG) — A group of University of West Florida graduates and professors published a study of suicide and opioid deaths, where those rates are high, and where the deaths overlap.

Dr. Raid Amin, a distinguished University professor in the Department of Mathematics and Statistics, Dr. Rodney Guttmann, professor in the Department of Biology, and former UWF graduate students Misty Uher, Matthew Holley and Bradly Rivera-Muniz studied suicide deaths and associations with several factors, including opioids deaths.

Amin told WKRG News 5 that the idea for the study originated two years ago during one of his classes.

“It started out just as a class project,” said Amin. “Each student is able to choose their own topic they want to research, and Matthew Holley decided to study suicides. The following year, another student, Misty Uher also chose suicide. Then, I got the idea that this has to be done really well. So, I brought in a more experienced student, Bradley Rivera. He has already published articles so I asked if he could help Misty and Matthew.”

Originally, opioid deaths were not part of the research, until Amin said he started looking at the results. Their research examined deaths from the years 2000 to 2019. Out of nine significant clusters, six were bivariate (suicide and opioids) while three were only opioids. 

“The overlap is not mentioned online anywhere,” said Amin. “I contacted the CDC and asked if there was an overlap between their data on deaths from opioids and deaths from suicides and they said it could, but they don’t have the data. They could not tell you if the suicides were from opioids or not. So, I added the section strictly on suicides and opioids because it is bivariate. I saw one discussion about a year ago that raised the question of the two being connected and I knew that it needed to be studied.”

The maps showed that suicide rates in the Panhandle may be “high,” but not as high as what is seen in most of the western part of the U.S. The research showed that clusters of counties with very high opioid mortality rates are also clusters of counties with very high rates of suicide and are associated with each other.

“You have to separate the two when you are looking at the Panhandle,” Amin said. “When looking at suicides, Escambia County’s rate is lower than the surrounding counties. People ask me why and I have to think that there are three major hospitals here. We have hospitals, we have centers for addiction and we have many physicians in town. Think about it, maybe they can be saved from killing themselves.”

Amin said the students worked well throughout the whole research process.

“These students have already graduated and working, and they still had passion for this project,” Amin said. “It shows the dedication that they have.”

The team used SaTScan and ArcGIS, a software used to analyze geographic information by visualizing geographical statistics and creating cluster maps and heatmaps. Their article was published in The Annals of Epidemiology. 

“These results have the potential to provide a scientific framework that is based on surveillance, allowing health agencies to intervene and reduce elevated rates of suicides in selected counties in the U.S.,” Amin said. “The study is limited due to the resolution of the data at the county level, and some covariate data was unavailable for the entire period of the study.”

For more information on the UWF Hal Marcus College of Science and Engineering, click here.

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