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Are people with OCD more likely to take their own lives?


Academic research can be hard to understand. SANE's Plain English research series translates important research into everyday language, to connect you with the latest information from the psychological field.

Suicide is the cause of about 800,000 deaths worldwide each year. People with mental illnesses are at a higher risk of dying by suicide than the general population. Surprisingly, there hasn’t been much good-quality research into the risk of suicide in people with OCD, one of the most common and disabling mental disorders.

OCD affects about 2% of Australians, and can have a huge impact on the quality of life of people with the disorder. People with OCD are highly likely to have another mental illness too, most commonly other anxiety disorders, depression or bipolar disorder.

The research paper

Suicide in obsessive–compulsive disorder: a population-based study of 36,788 Swedish patients,’ by Lorena Fernández de la Cruz, Mina Rydell, Bo Runeson, Brian D'Onofrio, Gustaf Brander, Christian Rück, Paul Lichtenstein, Henrik Larsson and David Mataix-Col.

Published in July 2016 in the scientific journal Molecular Psychiatry.

What the paper says

The researchers investigated how likely a person with OCD is to attempt suicide or to take their own life in Sweden, by comparing hospital records and the National Cause of Death Register.

The study found that people who have previously attempted suicide are more likely to re-attempt and eventually take their own lives. This means doctors and mental health workers should pay special attention to people with OCD who have previously attempted suicide.

The risk of suicide in people with OCD has traditionally been considered quite low, but this study found that people with OCD are in fact ten times more likely to take their own lives than the general population.

What the researchers did

The researchers analyzed data spanning over 40 years from the Swedish national registers, in order to estimate the risk of suicide among people with OCD and to identify what made people more or less likely to attempt suicide.

By comparing the list of all admissions to Swedish hospitals since 1969 with the list of all deaths in Sweden since 1952, the researchers tracked how many people with OCD were likely to attempt suicide or to die by suicide.

They identified 36,788 people with OCD in the Swedish National Patient Register between 1969 and 2013, of whom 545 had died by suicide and 4,297 had attempted suicide.

What the researchers found out

The researchers discovered that risk of death by suicide in people with OCD was approximately ten times higher than in the general population, and the risk of attempted suicide was five times higher.

They also learned that:

  • Women with OCD are more likely to attempt suicide than men with OCD, but women without OCD are less likely to attempt suicide than men without OCD
  • Men with OCD are more likely to die by suicide
  • People with OCD are more likely to have more than two suicide attempts
  • Having a personality disorder or a substance abuse disorder in addition to OCD increases the risk of suicide
  • Having another kind of anxiety disorder in addition to OCD actually decreased the risk of death by suicide, as does a higher socioeconomic status and a high level of education
  • OCD has a similar suicide risk as other mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, and a higher risk than trauma-related disorders or alcoholism
  • People with a higher level of education are more likely to attempt suicide, but less likely to die by suicide
  • People who have previously attempted suicide are more likely to die by suicide.

While people with OCD who also have another mental illness are more likely to die by suicide, 43% of people with OCD in the study who died by suicide did not have any other mental illness. This shows that people with OCD alone have a higher risk of suicide in their own right.

The researchers concluded that it is important that people with OCD should be monitored for suicidal thoughts. This is especially the case for those with other mental illnesses and a history of previous suicide attempts.

The researchers also stated that community education, peer support and access to mental health care can reduce the stigma surrounding OCD. This improves help-seeking and reduces the risk of suicide.

This SANE resource was created with support from The Vizard Foundation.

Are people with OCD more likely to take their own lives?: Factsheet & Guide

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