Suicide Risk Factors: Part II


There are many ways to think about suicide risk factors. In my last post, I focused on demographic and ethnic factors related to death by suicide. In this post, the focus is on the broad category of Mental Disorders and Psychiatric Treatment. The next post will focus on Personal and Social Factors that are linked to suicide.

As you’ll see below, the relationship between mental disorders, psychiatric treatment, and suicide is complex. The following material is adapted from our textbook, Clinical Interviewing and so you can find more information there: http://www.amazon.com/Clinical-Interviewing-John-Sommers-Flanagan/dp/1118270045/ref=asap_B0030LK6NM?ie=UTF8

Mental Disorders and Psychiatric Treatment

In general, psychiatric diagnosis is considered a risk factor for suicide. However, some diagnostic conditions (e.g., bipolar disorder and schizophrenia) have higher suicide rates than others (e.g., specific phobias and oppositional-defiant disorder). Several diagnostic conditions associated with heightened suicide risk are discussed in this section.

Schizophrenia

Schizophrenia is a good example of a mental disorder that has a complex association with increased suicide risk. As you may realize, many individuals diagnosed with schizophrenia are unlikely to attempt suicide or die by suicide. Some individuals with a schizophrenia diagnosis are at higher suicide risk than others.

In 2010, Hor and Taylor conducted a research review of risk factors associated with suicide among individuals with a diagnosis of schizophrenia. They initially identified 1,281 studies, eventually narrowing their focus to 51 with relevant schizophrenia-suicide data. Overall, they reported a lifetime suicide risk of about 5% (Hor & Taylor, 2010). Given that the annual risk in the general population is about 12 in 100,000 and assuming a life expectancy of 70 years the general lifetime risk is likely about 840 in 100,000 or 0.84%. This suggests that suicide risk among individuals diagnosed with schizophrenia is about 6 times greater than suicide risk within the general population.

However, there are unique predictive factors within the general population of individuals diagnosed with schizophrenia that further refine and increase suicide prediction. Hor and Taylor (2010) reported the following more specific suicide risk factors within the general population of individuals with a schizophrenia diagnosis:

  • Age (being younger)
  • Sex (being male)
  • Higher education level
  • Number of prior suicide attempts
  • Depressive symptoms
  • Active hallucinations and delusions
  • Presence of insight into one’s problems
  • Family history of suicide
  • Comorbid substance misuse (p. 81)

If you’re working with a client diagnosed with schizophrenia, the lifetime suicide prevalence for that client is predicted to be higher than in the general population. Presence of any of the preceding factors further increases that risk. This leaves a “highest risk prototype” among clients with schizophrenia as:

A young, male, with higher educational achievement, insight into his problems/diagnosis, a family history of suicide, previous attempts, active hallucinations and delusions, along with depressive symptoms and substance misuse.

Given what’s known about suicide unpredictability, it’s also important to remember that someone who fits the highest risk prototype may not be suicidal, whereas a client with no additional risk factors may be actively suicidal.

Depression

The relationship between depression and suicidal behavior is very well established (Bolton, Pagura, Enns, Grant, & Sareen, 2010; Holikatti & Grover, 2010; Schneider, 2012). Some experts believe depression is always associated with suicide (Westefeld and Furr, 1987). This close association has led to the labeling of depression as a lethal disease (Coppen, 1994).

It’s also clear that not all people with depressive symptoms are suicidal. In fact, it appears that depression by itself is much less of a suicide predictor than depression combined with another disturbing condition or conditions. For example, when depression is comorbid (occurring simultaneously) with anxiety, substance use, post-traumatic stress disorder, and borderline or dependent personality disorder, risk substantially increases. (Bolton et al., 2010). Earlier research also supports this pattern, with suicidality increasing along with additional distressing symptoms or experiences, including:

  • Severe anxiety
  • Panic attacks
  • Severe anhedonia
  • Alcohol abuse
  • Substantially decreased ability to concentrate
  • Global insomnia
  • Repeated deliberate self-harm
  • History of physical/sexual abuse
  • Employment problems
  • Relationship loss
  • Hopelessness (Fawcett, Clark, & Busch, 1993; Marangell et al., 2006; Oquendo et al., 2007)

Given this pattern it seems reasonable to conclude that when clients are experiencing greater depression severity and/or additional distressing symptoms, suicide risk increases. Van Orden and colleagues offered a similar conclusion:

. . . data indicate that depression is likely associated with the development of desire for suicide, whereas other disorders, marked by agitation or impulse control deficits, are associated with increased likelihood of acting on suicidal thoughts. (Van Orden et al., 2010, p. 577)

Bipolar Disorder

Research has repeatedly shown that individuals diagnosed with bipolar disorder at increased risk of suicide. Similar to schizophrenia and depression, there are many specific risk factors that predict increased suicidality among clients with bipolar disorder.

In a large-scale French study, eight risk factors were linked to lifetime suicide attempts (Azorin et al., 2009). These included:

1. Multiple hospitalizations
2. Depressive or mixed polarity of first episode
3. Presence of stressful life events before illness onset
4. Younger age at onset
5. No symptom-free intervals between episodes
6. Female sex
7. Greater number of previous episodes
8. Cyclothymic temperament (p. 115)

These findings are consistent with the research on unipolar depression; it appears that severity of bipolar disorder and accumulation of additional distressing experiences increase suicide risk. Another study identified (a) White race, (b) family suicide history, (c) history of cocaine abuse, and (d) history of benzodiazepine abuse were associated with increased suicide attempts (Cassidy, 2011)

Post-Traumatic Stress

In 2006, renowned psychologist Donald Meichenbaum reflected on his 35-plus years of working with suicidal clients. He wrote:

In reviewing my clinical notes from these several suicidal patients and the consultations that I have conducted over the course of my years of clinical work, the one thing that they all had in common was a history of victimization, including combat exposure (my first clinical case), sexual abuse, and surviving the Holocaust. (Meichenbaum, 2006, p. 334)

Clinical research supports Meichenbaum’s reflections. For example, in a file review of 200 outpatients, child sexual abuse was a better predictor of suicidality than depression (Read, Agar, Barker-Collo, Davies, & Moskowitz, 2001). Similarly, data from the National Comorbidity Survey (N = 5,877) showed that women who were sexually abused as children were 2 to 4 times more likely to attempt suicide, and men sexually abused as children were 4 to 11 times more likely to attempt suicide (Molnar, Berkman, & Buka, 2001). Overall, research over the past two decades points to several stress-related experiences as linked to suicide attempts and death by suicide (Wilcox & Fawcett, 2012). These include general trauma, stressful life events, and childhood abuse and neglect. Characteristics of these experiences that are most predictive of suicide are:

  • Assaultive abuse or trauma.
  • Chronicity of stress or trauma.
  • Severity of stress or trauma.
  • Earlier developmental stress or trauma. (Wilcox & Fawcett, 2012)

These particular life experiences appear related to suicidal behavior across a variety of populations—including military personnel, street youth, and female victims of sexual assault (Black, Gallaway, Bell, & Ritchie, 2011; Cox et al., 2011; Hadland et al., 2012; Snarr et al., 2010; Spokas, Wenzel, Stirman, Brown, & Beck, 2009).

Substance Abuse

Research is unequivocal in linking alcohol and drug use to increased suicide risk (Sher, 2006). Suicide risk increases even more substantially when substance abuse is associated with depression, social isolation, and other suicide risk factors.

One way that alcohol and drug use increases suicide risk is by decreasing inhibition. People act more impulsively when in chemically altered states and suicide is usually considered an impulsive act. No matter how much planning has preceded a suicide act, at the moment the pills are taken, the trigger is pulled, or the wrist is slit, some theorists believe that some form of disinhibition or dissociation has probably occurred (Shneidman, 1996). Mixing alcohol and prescription medications can further elevate suicide risk.

Several other specific mental disorders have clear links to death by suicide. These include:

  • Anorexia nervosa
  • Borderline personality disorder
  • Conduct disorder (see Van Orden et al., 2010)

Post-Hospital Discharge

For individuals admitted to hospitals because of a mental disorder, the period immediately following discharge carries increased suicide risk. This is particularly true of individuals who have additional risk factors such as previous suicide attempts, lack of social support, and chronic psychiatric disorders. Overall, suicide ideation and attempts are predictably high. In one study 3.3% completed suicide within 6 months of discharge, whereas 39.4% had self-harm behaviors or suicide attempts (Links et al., 2012). Another study reported “3% of patients categorized as being at high risk can be expected to commit suicide in the year after discharge” (Large, Sharma, Cannon, Ryan, & Nielssen, 2011, p. 619).

Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs)

Over the past two decades, empirical data linking SSRI medications to suicidal impulses has accumulated to the point that recent administration of SSRI medications should be considered a possible suicide risk factor (Breggin, 2010; Valenstein et al., 2012). This is true despite the fact that some research also shows that SSRI antidepressants reduce suicide rates (Kuba et al., 2011; Leon et al., 2011). Overall, it appears that in a minority of clients (2–5%) SSRI antidepressants may increase agitation in a way that contributes to increased risk for suicidal behaviors (J. Sommers-Flanagan & Campbell, 2009).

In September 2004, an expert panel of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) voted 25–0 in support of an SSRI-suicide link. Later, the panel voted 15–8 in favor of a “black box warning” on SSRI medication labels. The warning states:

Antidepressants increased the risk compared to placebo of suicidal thinking and behavior (suicidality) in children, adolescents, and young adults in short-term studies of Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) and other psychiatric disorders. Patients of all ages who are started on antidepressant therapy should be monitored appropriately and observed closely for clinical worsening, suicidality, or unusual changes in behavior. Families and caregivers should be advised of the need for close observation and communication with the prescriber.

In 2006, the FDA extended its SSRI suicidality warning to adult patients aged 18–24 years (United States Food and Drug Administration, 2007).

There’s no doubt that debate about whether SSRI medications increase suicide risk will continue. In the meantime, prudent practice dictates that mental health providers be alert to the possibility of increased suicide risk among clients who have recently been prescribed antidepressant medications (Sommers-Flanagan & Campbell, 2009).

In the next post in this series I’ll be focusing on Personal and Social factors associated with suicide.

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