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Neurological disorders are linked to elevated suicide rates

A new study reveals that several different neurological disorders are associated with higher suicide rates when compared to people with no such disorders.

By Nana Olejank Hansen, , 2/4/2020

A newly published study in JAMA shows that people with neurological disorders have a 75% higher suicide rate than people with no neurological disorders. Still, suicide deaths are rare events. While the suicide rate for the general population is around 20 per 100,000, the rate for people with neurological disorders is around 40 per 100,000 person-years. The study is based on the data covering the entire population of Denmark and followed over 37 years.

The researchers found that one out of 150 persons diagnosed with a neurological disorder dies by suicide. For severe neurological diseases, such as Huntington’s, one out of 61 diagnosed went on to die by suicide. This study is the most comprehensive assessment of neurological disorders’ link to suicide conducted to date.

- This is the first time we have examined this many different neurological disorders to gain a more detailed understanding of when risk of suicide is pronounced. These insights can help us shape dedicated preventive effort says Dr. Annette Erlangsen, lead author, and Adjunct Associate Professor at University of Southern Denmark.

As much as 5 times higher suicide rates

The study shows that people who have been diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) or Huntington’s disease have a particular high risks, as the suicide rate associated with these disorders is 4-5 times higher than in the general population.

Furthermore, people who have been exposed to traumatic brain injury, multiple sclerosis, or epilepsy have a suicide rate, which is double the level of the one found among those with no such disorders.

- There may be several and co-exiting explanations for the excess suicide rate. People may have difficulties understanding and coming to terms with the consequences of a newly diagnosed chronical disorder. In addition, mental disorders as well as social and relationship factors may play a role, explains Dr. Elsebeth Stenager, a professor in social psychiatry at University of Southern Denmark.

Changes in risk

Often risk of suicide has been associated with psychiatric mental but this new study shows that also neurological disorders are linked to an elevated suicide rate. It is even possible that undiagnosed mental disorders may account for some of this excess risk.

- The elevated risk appears at different stages during the course of the disorders. For example, people with dementia were found to have a 2-3 time higher suicide rate during the first three months after being diagnosed. On the other hand, people who had been diagnosed with dementia more than a year ago were found to have a lower suicide rate than the general population, explains Dr. Egon Stenager, a clinical professor in neurology at University of Southern Denmark.

He and the research team cannot yet explain why these differences in risk of suicide are observed. However, it seems to be related to the type of disorder, the progress of the disease and what treatment options exist.

Development of preventive initiatives

The research team behind the study consisted of international experts on neurology, psychiatry, and suicide prevention. By using unique linkable, Danish record data, it was possible to calculate exact suicide rates for rate disorders, such as ALS and Huntington’s disease. It is expected that the findings will be of great benefit for future interventions.

Further analyses will be needed to identify how risks of suicide may best be address for individual disorders. Annette Erlangsen explains that the goal for this first step was to identify, which disorders ought to be addressed by preventive efforts. The next steps are to consider at what time and how intervention should be offered.



The study is based on data covering 7.3 Danes during 1980-2016.

The research team linked data on hospital contacts, causes of death and socio-demographic information for the entire population of Denmark.

Some of the neurological disorders that were examined:

  • Head injury
  • Apoplexy
  • Epilepsy
  • Polyneuropathy
  • Myasthenia gravis
  • Parkinson
  • Multiple Sclerosis
  • Centrale nervous system infections
  • Meningitis
  • Encephalitis
  • Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS)
  • Huntington’s disease
  • Dementia
  • Intellectual disabilities
Read the study

The research study: "Association Between Neurological Disorders and Death by Suicide in Denmark" is published in The Journal of American Medical Association

Meet the researcher

Annette Erlangsen, PhD, Head of Program, Danish Research Institute for Suicide Prevention, Copenhagen, and Adjunct Associate Professor at University of Southern Denmark.

Meet the researcher

Egon Stenager, Clinical Professor in Neurology at University of Southern Denmark, IRS Hospital of Southern Jutland, Brain- and Nervous disorders.

Meet the researcher

Elsebeth Stenager, professor in Social Psychiatry at University of Southern Denmark, IRS Mental Health Services in the Region of Southern Denmark.


Editing was completed: 04.02.2020