Importance: Suicide is a leading cause of death in the United States, having increased more than 30% from 2000 to 2018. An inexpensive, safe, widely available treatment for preventing suicidal behavior could reverse this trend.
Objective: To confirm a previous signal for decreased risk of suicide attempt following prescription fills for folic acid in a national pharmacoepidemiologic study of patients treated with folic acid.
Design, setting, and participants: A within-person exposure-only cohort design was used to study the dynamic association between folic acid (vitamin B9) prescription fills over a 24-month period and suicide attempts and intentional self-harm. Data were collected from a pharmacoepidemiologic database of US medical claims (MarketScan) for patients with private health insurance who filled a folic acid prescription between 2012 and 2017. The same analysis was repeated with a control supplement (cyanocobalamin, vitamin B12). Data were analyzed from August 2021 to June 2022.
Exposure: Folic acid prescription fills.
Main outcome and measure: Suicide attempt or intentional self-harm resulting in an outpatient visit or inpatient admission as identified by codes from the International Statistical Classification of Diseases, Ninth and Tenth Revisions, Clinical Modification.
Results: Data on 866 586 patients were collected; 704 514 (81.30%) were female, and 90 296 (10.42%) were 60 years and older. Overall, there were 261 suicidal events during months covered by a folic acid prescription (5 521 597 person-months) for a rate of 4.73 per 100 000 person-months, compared with 895 suicidal events during months without folic acid (8 432 340) for a rate of 10.61 per 100 000 person-months. Adjusting for age and sex, diagnoses related to suicidal behavior, diagnoses related to folic acid deficiency, folate-reducing medications, history of folate-reducing medications, and history of suicidal events, the hazard ratio (HR) for folic acid for suicide events was 0.56 (95% CI, 0.48-0.65), with similar results for the modal dosage of 1 mg of folic acid per day (HR, 0.57; 95% CI, 0.48-0.69) and women of childbearing age (HR, 0.60; 95% CI, 0.50-0.73). A duration-response analysis (1-mg dosage) revealed a 5% decrease in suicidal events per month of additional treatment (HR, 0.95; 95% CI, 0.93-0.97). The same analysis for the negative control, cyanocobalamin, found no association with suicide attempt (HR, 1.01; 95% CI, 0.80-1.27).
Conclusions and relevance: This large-scale pharmacoepidemiologic study of folic acid found a beneficial association in terms of lower rates of suicide attempts. The results warrant the conduct of a randomized clinical trial with suicidal ideation and behavior as outcomes of interest. If confirmed, folic acid may be a safe, inexpensive, and widely available treatment for suicidal ideation and behavior.