Suicide and High Altitude: An Integrative Review

High Alt Med Biol. 2018 Jun;19(2):99-108. doi: 10.1089/ham.2016.0131. Epub 2017 Nov 21.

Abstract

Reno, Elaine, Talia L. Brown, Marian E. Betz, Michael H. Allen, Lilian Hoffecker, Jeremy Reitinger, Robert Roach, and Benjamin Honigman. Suicide and high altitude: an integrative review. High Alt Med Biol 19:99-108, 2018.

Introduction: Suicide rates are greater at high altitudes, and multiple mechanisms have been suggested for this relationship, including hypoxia, differences in population density, characteristics of suicide victims, and firearms ownership and access. To better understand these potential mechanisms, studies evaluating the associations between high altitude and suicide were examined.

Methods: A literature review of published studies on high altitude and suicide was conducted in Medline, Embase, Web of Science, the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, and the Cochrane CENTRAL database. We extracted and analyzed all studies that met the inclusion criteria, excluding foreign language studies and letters. Most of the measurements and results were synthesized using modified Letts' criteria.

Results: Searches using an extensive list of keywords returned 470 articles, but only 6 met the inclusion criteria. The studies' samples ranged in size from 8871 to 596,704, while studies which did not document sample size reported suicide rates. In five of the studies selected, individuals living at high altitudes were at greater risk of suicide. Four studies used aggregated data at a county or state level to analyze variables, such as age, gender, race, socioeconomic factors, and firearms access. All the studies found that high altitude was independently associated with suicide. One study found that many individual characteristics of those who committed suicide were different at high altitudes than low altitude, including a lack of access or barriers to mental healthcare. Depression exacerbated by hypoxia was hypothesized as a possible biologic mechanism in three studies.

Conclusion: These research studies published since 2009 support an association between high altitude and suicide rates at the state or county level, but do not provide sufficient data to estimate the effect of high altitude on an individuals' suicide risk. Although the impact of hypoxia on mood and depression has been hypothesized to be a contributing cause, many other individual factors likely play more important roles.

Keywords: depression; high altitude; mental health; suicide.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Altitude Sickness / psychology*
  • Altitude*
  • Depression / psychology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Suicide / statistics & numerical data*