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What to Know About Chronic Pain and Suicide Risk

September 10 Is World Suicide Prevention Day

Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, two high-profile celebrities who killed themselves earlier this year, are just the tip of the iceberg.

In 2016 (the most recent year for which data is available), 45,000 people committed suicide—twice the number who died from homicides—reports the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). That’s a 30 percent increase since 1999. What’s more, notes the CDC, emergency room visits for non-fatal self-harm incidents, a sometimes-prelude to suicide, increased 42 percent in the 15 years from 2001 to 2016.

What accounts for this uptick in suicide and suicide attempts?  The answer is complicated and multifaceted. But one undeniable factor is America’s burgeoning problem with chronic pain.

The Pain/Suicide Connection

Chronic pain—something 25 million Americans suffer with, says the National Institutes of Health—is a relentless beast. It doesn’t take a break for vacations. It won’t show you any mercy just because you had a bad day at work, you’re having trouble making the rent or you have to coach your kid’s basketball game in an hour. It has no regard for holidays. And it couldn’t care less about your birthday.

It can suck the joy and—quite literally—the life out of you.

According to research published in Psychological Medicine, people with chronic pain have twice the risk of suicide as people without pain, and up to 14 percent of people with chronic pain actually attempt to end their lives.

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Pain doesn’t typically live in a vacuum.  It co-exists with depression, substance abuse, sleep deprivation, unemployment, isolation and hopelessness. Research reported on in the journal Pain Medicine notes that while 50 percent of people with chronic pain have thought about suicide, many of them will not seek mental health counseling for fear that their very real pain symptoms will be minimized and chalked up to mental illness.

Who’s Most At Risk?

Research shows that some people with chronic pain have a higher risk of suicide than others. They include those who:

  • Smoke
  • Have an alcohol problem
  • Use illegal drugs
  • Are angry
  • Have encountered childhood or adult trauma
  • Have a family history of depression or suicide
  • Experience sleep problems
  • Have multiple sources of pain
  • Are unemployed
  • Are disabled


Helping those with chronic pain avoid suicide is a two-pronged approach. Besides taking steps to try and effectively manage pain, medical providers need to screen for depression and monitor those who meet the criteria, especially if they have access to firearms and lethal doses of opioids and medications.

If you know someone with chronic pain and are worried he or she may try to commit suicide, arm yourself with information and support. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline advises calling the Lifeline at 800-273-8255 (TALK), staffed 24/7 by trained crisis workers, if you notice the person you are concerned about is:

  • Talking about ending his/her life
  • Thinks he/she is a burden
  • Feels hopeless or trapped
  • Drinking too much
  • Not sleeping
  • Is withdrawing, not even taking part in activities once found enjoyable
  • Has extreme mood swings


Suicide is scary, and talking about it can be uncomfortable and emotional. But help—in the form of therapy, medication and social support—is available. For information on locating mental/behavioral health treatment centers in your area, call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) Treatment Referral Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).

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Donna Christiano Campisano
Donna Christiano Campisano is freelance writer specializing in health issues. She has written for numerous consumer publications and websites, including magazines such as Parents and Woman’s Day. She has also served on the staffs of both Glamour and Brides magazines as a researcher and copywriter. In addition to freelance writing, Donna also works as a staff writer at the University of South Florida’s College of Public Health. She lives in the Tampa area with her family and her beagle Bananas.


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