Suicide Rate Higher In People With Epilepsy

While the suicide rate in general continues to rise across the United States, people within certain demographics seem to be more at risk — age, profession, and race can play a part, but so can certain medical conditions. Some of those are well known, as people with mental health issues make up the majority of health-related suicides, such as clinical depression, bipolar disorder, and addiction. People with chronic pain from cancer, muscular diseases, chronic migraine headache, and fibromyalgia may be more likely to consider suicide as well.

In a medical culture that is becoming less and less likely to prescribe narcotic pain management, it’s no surprise that many with chronic pain may consider suicide as their last and only option. What is surprising is a group of Americans that is at higher risk for suicide that nobody probably considers much — people with epilepsy.

Diabetic patients may be able to control their insulin levels with oral medication. [Photo By John Moore/Getty Images]

To understand how someone with epilepsy’s daily life is affected, one must understand what epilepsy is. The Oxford dictionary defines it as “a neurological disorder marked by sudden recurrent episodes of sensory disturbance, loss of consciousness, or convulsions, associated with abnormal electrical activity in the brain.” What that means is that people with this disorder often have seizures of various severity, some controlled with medicine, some not controlled well at all. For the people who can’t find that control, their lives suffer in a way that many cannot imagine.

Many things require consciousness at all times — driving, parenting, jobs. It’s something that many may take for granted. It’s difficult to imagine what it is like to have to depend on someone else for the most mundane of activities. Maybe that’s why so many with epilepsy have committed suicide, at a rate that is approximately 22 percent higher than the general population’s rate of suicide.

According to EurkAlert, the results were published in Epilepsy and Behavior, a sentinel study that may show how difficult the life that people with epilepsy face. The study was led by Dale Hesdorffer, Ph.D., a professor of epidemiology at the Mailman School of Public Health, which researched the data from the U.S. National Violent Death Reporting System. The study identified 972 people with epilepsy out of 81,529 cases of suicide in individuals aged 10 or more. Using this data, they were able to retroactively compare suicide trends in people with and without epilepsy between the years 2003 and 2011.

Health Care Providers
Registered nurse sorts a patient's medication while on a home health care visit. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

Compared to others who had committed suicide, those with epilepsy were more likely to have committed suicide in houses or institutions and twice as likely to have committed suicide by self-poisoning, including overdosing on pills, which may have included some of the same medication prescribed to treat their epilepsy. People between the ages of 40 and 49 were most likely to have committed suicide if they had been diagnosed with epilepsy, according to Dr. Hesdorffer.

“Of particular significance is what we learned about those 40 to 49 years old. Efforts for suicide prevention should target people with epilepsy in this age category specifically. Additional preventive efforts should include reducing the availability or exposure to poisons, especially at home, and supporting other evidence-based programs to reduce mental illness comorbidity associated with suicide.”

This does not mean that people of all ages with epilepsy are at risk for suicide. Further studies need to be conducted on the specific risk factors and contributing psychosocial issues of the 40 to 49 age range. What it may indicate is that societal stressors, such as career, income, parenting, and caring for aging parents, are specific issues that seem impossible when also dealing with epilepsy.

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