Medication has helped reduce Australian suicide rate

9 May 2003

Access to antidepressant medication has had a significant impact on suicide deaths in Australia a new study has found.

Featuring researchers from the University of Queensland's (UQ) Institute for Molecular Bioscience (IMB), University of New South Wales and the Commonwealth Department of Health and Ageing, the study analysed national trends in suicide rates and antidepressant prescribing from 1991 to 2000.

IMB's Professor Wayne Hall said that while overall suicide rates remained constant over the ten year period studied, there was a decline in the suicide rate for older men and women.

"By analysing the data according to age and antidepressant use, we found that age groups with the highest exposure to antidepressant medication had the largest decline in suicide rate," Professor Hall said.

"Unfortunately the suicide rate in Australia has remained constant despite the reduction for older Australians because youth suicide increased rapidly during the period investigated."

The study also identified a number of factors that improved the effectiveness of antidepressant prescribing and may have contributed to the decline in suicide.

"Firstly depression is a risk factor for suicide and antidepressants reduce suicidal thoughts," he said.

"Secondly prescribing of antidepressant drugs is often accompanied by other treatments that in combination with medication may reduce suicidal behaviour.

"The introduction of selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors (SSRIs eg Aropax, Prozac, Zoloft), which reduce the risk of lethal overdose and fewer serious drug interactions, may have reduced doctors' reluctance to prescribe antidepressants.

"Our study suggests that there is a relationship between increased antidepressant prescribing and a decline in suicide mortality in Australia and it would be interesting to study suicide rates in countries that have not experienced increases in antidepressant prescribing," Professor Hall said.