Infection Could Increase Suicide Risk

Infection Could Increase Suicide Risk
Spending time in a hospital like this with an infection could increase the risk of suicide. Photo courtesy de la Repúblic.

Being hospitalized with a serious infection is never fun, but scientists have just discovered another downside. A new study discovered that people hospitalized with an infection were at an increased risk of committing suicide, and the longer their hospital stay, the higher their risk.

The study comes from Helene Lund-Sørensen, B.M., of Copenhagen University Hospital, Denmark and other researchers, who published their results in the journal JAMA Psychiatry. While other researchers tend to focus on the psychological causes of suicide, Lund-Sørensen and team decided to investigate what biological factors increase the risk of suicide.

The study included more than 7.2 million people living in Denmark between 1980 and 2011 who were age 15 or older. Using nationwide registries, the researchers looked at details of any infection the participants were hospitalized for, if any, along with any suicides in the group. The researchers defined a history of infection as one or more diagnoses of infection since 1977, and they grouped the infections into the type of pathogen, such as bacteria or virus, and the type of infection, such as sepsis, central nervous system, hepatitis, HIV, or AIDS.

Of the study participants, 809,384 were hospitalized with an infection, which is 11.2 percent of the total participants. There were 32,683 suicides in total, with 7,892 of those people, or about 24.1 percent, having been in the hospital with an infection. When the researchers crunched their numbers, they discovered that those who had been hospitalized with an infection were 42 percent more likely than their uninfected peers to die by suicide. Not only that, but the more infections someone had and the longer their treatment lasted, the higher their risk for suicide.

The study results seem to suggest that when someone has an infection, it increases their suicide risk. However, the study did not show that having an infection caused an increase risk of suicide. People could simply be feeling suicidal after spending time in the hospital and dealing with the stress of their disease, or they could feel suicidal if their infection left them with limited mobility or a disability, or people who were potentially suicidal may have just been taking less care of themselves and were more prone to infection.

However, the higher suicide risk after a serious infection could have a biological basis. Other studies have suggested infections and inflammation seem to increase the risk of suicidal behavior, and this study could be more evidence of that link. The researchers are unsure of how exactly the infection would trigger the suicide, though, although inflammation in the body may be involved.

Further research would need to determine if a history of infection does indeed increase the risk of suicide, and the mechanisms behind that link. However, the authors suggest their findings could help public health efforts to prevent suicide even as the link is explored. Intervention to help identify and treat infections sooner could help prevent these infections from becoming severe and putting the patient at risk of suicide. Doctors treating patients with an infection could also be aware of a potentially increased risk of suicide, watching for signs that their patient may be suicidal and helping them find mental health help.

Suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in the United States, with 42,773 people dying every year, which works out to 117 people every day. Men die from suicide about three and a half times more often than women, with the highest suicide rate in middle age although many youth are also at risk. Not everyone who attempts suicide dies, and although statistics on suicide attempts are hard to confirm, there are 494,169 hospital visits a year for self-harm injuries. If someone is feeling suicidal, they can call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) to find someone to talk to and to get referred to the help they need.

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