More Antidepressants, Fewer Suicides?
May 7, 2002 — A recent drop in nationwide suicide rates may be due in large part to a dramatic increase in the number of people using antidepressant drugs, according to new research.
Current estimates show that more than 29,000 people in the U.S. commit suicide each year, but researchers say it’s the first time that number has dipped to below 30,000 in more than 25 years. At the same time, the number of prescriptions for antidepressant drugs has risen by 41% from 1995 to 1998.
“It’s possible that antidepressants, which are known to treat depression — the most frequent cause of suicide — are contributing to a very positive trend,” said John Mann, MD, president of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP). He presented the findings today at a news conference in New York City.
Mann points to the fact that prescription rates rose sharply in the early 1990s with the introduction of the new generation of antidepressants known as SSRIs, and shortly thereafter in 1994 there was a sudden acceleration in the rate of decline in the number of suicides.
He says suicides among youths, an age group at high risk for suicide, had tripled between 1955 and 1985. But in the last decade, rates have dropped by 27%. Meanwhile, studies have shown that prescription rates for antidepressant medications for this age group has skyrocketed.
“Prevention of suicide starts with the recognition that psychiatric illness is associated with suicide,” said Mann. He says nearly all people who die of suicide are suffering from a psychiatric disorder at the time.
Although researchers haven’t proven that the rise in antidepressant prescriptions has caused the fall in suicides, Mann says other factors that frequently contribute to suicide rates, such as access to alcohol, guns, pesticides, pills, carbon monoxide, and the layout of train stations, have remained relatively unchanged during the same time period.
Experts agree that as the barriers to seeking treatment for depression continue to recede, related problems such as suicide should also begin to diminish.
“Stigma is the major barrier,” said David Satcher, MD, former U.S. surgeon general and member of the board of directors of AFSP, who also spoke at the conference. “Not only for people to seek treatment, but for survivors to talk about their experiences and educate others.”
Mann says that unfortunately there is little research on the effect of psychotherapy alone (without the use of prescription drugs) on suicide prevention in depressed people, which may have also contributed to the recent decline. He says more research should be conducted on this issue.