Suicide is one of the most feared outcomes of any psychiatric condition. Although its association with depression is well known, a small but growing research literature shows that ADHD is also a risk factor for suicidality.
Suicide is difficult to study. Because it is relatively rare, large samples of patients are needed to make definitive statements. Studies of suicide and ADHD must also consider the possibility that medications might elevate that risk.
For example, the FDA placed a black box warning on atomoxetine because that ADHD medication had been shown to increase suicidal risk in youth. A recent study of 37,936 patients with ADHD now provides much insight into these issues (Chen, Q., Sjolander, A., Runeson, B., D’Onofrio, B. M., Lichtenstein, P. & Larsson, H. (2014). Drug treatment for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and suicidal behaviour: register based study. BMJ 348, g3769.). In Sweden, such large studies are possible because researchers have computerized medical registers that describe the disorders and treatments of all people in Sweden. Among 37,936 patients with ADHD, 7019 suicide attempts or completed suicides occurred during 150,721 person years of follow-up. This indicates that, in any given year, the risk for a suicidal event is about 5%.
For ADHD patients, the risk for a suicide event is about 30% greater than for non-ADHD patients. Among the ADHD patients who attempted or completed suicide, the risk was increased for those who had also been diagnosed with a mood disorder, conduct disorder, substance abuse or borderline personality. This is not surprising; the most serious and complicated cases of ADHD are those that have the greatest risk for suicidal events.
The effects of medication were less clear. The risk for suicide events was greater for ADHD patients who had been treated with non-stimulant medication compared with those who had not been treated with non-stimulant medication. A similar comparison showed no effect of stimulant medications.
This first analysis suffers from the fact that the probability of receiving medication increases with the severity of the disorder. To address this problem, the researchers limited the analyses to ADHD patients who had had some medication treatment and then compared suicidal risk between periods of medication treatment and periods of no medication treatment. This analysis found no increased risk for suicide from non-stimulant medications and, more importantly, found that for patients treated with stimulants, the risk for suicide was lower when they were taking stimulant medications. This protective effect of stimulant medication provides further evidence of the long-term effects of stimulant medications which have also been shown to lower the risks for traffic accidents, criminality, smoking and other substance use disorders.