Dysthymia and major depressive disorder (MDD) are both risk diagnoses for suicidal behaviour. The aim of the present study was to identify clinical differences between these disorders, with a special reference to dysthymia. We studied suicidal behaviour, comorbidity and psychiatric symptoms of inpatient suicide attempters with dysthymia and MDD. We used DSM III-R diagnostics, the Suicide Assessment Scale (SUAS) and the Comprehensive Psychopathological Rating Scale (CPRS), part of which is the Montgomery and Asberg Depression Rating Scale (MADRS). Suicide mortality, number of repeated suicide attempts, method of suicide attempt and comorbidity of Axis I did not differ between the groups. Dysthymia patients, however, suffered more than MDD patients from DSM-III-R Axis II diagnoses (above all cluster B). There was no significant difference in Axis III comorbidity. Total SUAS, CPRS and MADRS scores did not differ significantly between the groups. When studying separate SUAS and CPRS items in a multivariate analysis, the CPRS items "aches and pains", "increased speech flow", increased "agitation" and "less tendency to worrying over trifles" as well as young age remained independently associated with dysthymia. Dysthymia patients, who later committed suicide, more often reported increased "aches and pains" than those who did not commit suicide. In this small sample of suicide attempters, we conclude that dysthymia suicide attempters, more often than MDD patients, have a comorbidity with personality disorders, which combined with a picture of aches and pains, could be factors explaining their suicidality.