Community Awareness Rallying to End Suicide

September 19, 2017

We teach that recognition of the risk factors that may one day lead someone to consider suicide is a critical part of preventing that suicide. Those risk factors include mental health problems, life crises that may spark a suicide, access to guns and other means of completing a suicide, prior suicide attempts, and addiction issues among others.

We should also be considering physical illness as a risk factor. We have all heard stories of someone diagnosed with terminal cancer, for instance, taking his or her own life, perhaps to avoid pain and to save his loved ones from the torture of watching the death. But other physical illnesses can also be substantial risk factors for suicide.

An analysis of data from eight health care systems confirmed that many physical health conditions are associated with risk of suicide death. Traumatic brain injury increased suicide risk nearly ninefold, and HIV/AIDS and sleep disorders more than doubled it. While hypertension and back pain were associated with smaller increases in risk, they were the most common conditions among those who died by suicide.

Nine physical conditions were linked to risk of death by suicide: back pain, brain injury, cancer, congestive heart failure, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, epilepsy, HIV/AIDS, migraine, and sleep disorders. Risk increased substantially for people with two or more conditions.

According to the study authors, these findings provide evidence that suicide prevention efforts should target patients with chronic physical health conditions in addition to patients with more well-known risk factors for suicide, such as mental health and substance use disorders and suicidal ideation. They suggested using this information to develop electronic medical record algorithms to improve detection of suicide risk in health care settings.