Antidepressants trim suicide tries

Two extensive new investigations indicate that depressed people who take antidepressant drugs generally become less likely to attempt suicide.

Gregory E. Simon and James Savarino of Group Health Cooperative, a health maintenance organization in Seattle, analyzed medical and pharmacy records for 109,256 patients who had received depression treatment between 1996 and 2005. Patients’ suicide attempts spiked during the month before starting treatment with medication, psychotherapy, or both. The frequency of suicide tries declined substantially during the 6 months after starting any of these treatments.

This pattern applied to teenagers and young adults as well as to older patients, the researchers say.

The researchers hypothesize that, for most patients, starting treatment with medication or psychotherapy diminishes depression symptoms, including thoughts about death and killing oneself. However, Simon suggests that further research needs to determine whether antidepressants aggravate agitation and suicidal thoughts in certain individuals.

A second study, directed by Robert D. Gibbons of the University of Illinois at Chicago, focused on data for 226,866 military veterans diagnosed with depression and then tracked for at least 6 months. Patients treated with fluoxetine (Prozac) or any other antidepressant medication during that period displayed large decreases in the frequency of suicide attempts that did not occur for other patients.

Again, the pattern held for all ages, including vets younger than 25 or older than 65.

Both new studies appear in the July American Journal of Psychiatry.

Bruce Bower

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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