Background: Approximately 30 000 people die annually by suicide in the United States. Although 60% of suicides occur during a mood disorder, mostly untreated, little is known about the relationship between antidepressant medication use and the rate of suicide in the United States.
Objective: To examine the association between antidepressant medication prescription and suicide rate by analyzing associations at the county level across the United States.
Design: Analysis of National Vital Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Setting: All US counties.
Participants: All US individuals who committed suicide between 1996 and 1998.
Main outcome measures: National county-level suicide rate data are broken down by age, sex, income, and race for the period of 1996 to 1998. National county-level antidepressant prescription data are expressed as number of pills prescribed. The primary outcome measure is the suicide rate in each county expressed as the number of suicides for a given population size.
Results: The overall relationship between antidepressant medication prescription and suicide rate was not significant. Within individual classes of antidepressants, prescriptions for selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and other new-generation non-SSRI antidepressants (eg, nefazodone hydrochloride, mirtazapine, bupropion hydrochloride, and venlafaxine hydrochloride) are associated with lower suicide rates (both within and between counties). A positive association between tricyclic antidepressant (TCA) prescription and suicide rate was observed. Results are adjusted for age, sex, race, income, and county-to-county variability in suicide rates. Higher suicide rates in rural areas are associated with fewer antidepressant prescriptions, lower income, and relatively more prescriptions for TCAs.
Conclusions: The aggregate nature of these observational data preclude a direct causal interpretation of the results. A high number of TCA prescriptions may be a marker for those counties with more limited access to quality mental health care and inadequate treatment and detection of depression, which in turn lead to increased suicide rates. By contrast, increases in prescriptions for SSRIs and other new-generation non-SSRIs are associated with lower suicide rates both between and within counties over time and may reflect antidepressant efficacy, compliance, a better quality of mental health care, and low toxicity in the event of a suicide attempt by overdose.