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How a Traumatic Brain Injury Can Lead to Suicide Risk

Traumatic brain injuries (TBIs) can affect survivors in unique and unpredictable ways. Each individual, injury, and case is different from the next. One pattern researchers have explored in the past is a possible connection between brain injuries and risk of suicide. A recent study from Denmark has shed light on this phenomenon through an extensive study of 34,529 suicide deaths over the course of 35 years. The study concluded that TBIs could, in fact, increase the risk of suicide.

Long-Term Psychiatric Consequences of a TBI

Past studies have already taken steps to confirm a relationship between traumatic brain injuries and long-lasting psychiatric health changes and issues. TBIs have proven effects on the brain and can contribute to psychiatric disorders such as neuropsychiatric sequelae and even psychosis. Brain injuries can cause contusions and damage to the brain’s delicate lobes, impacting areas of the brain responsible for decision-making, social function, and a range of other behavioral, emotional, and cognitive functions. These impacts can last throughout the survivor’s life.

Two of the most common psychological outcomes of traumatic brain injuries are aggression and irritability. Survivors may report increases in these behaviors and feelings in the weeks or months following an injury to the brain. It has been historically difficult, however, to identify exactly how much a TBI is a factor in aggression and irritability. Understanding exactly how a brain injury might affect a person’s psychiatric state takes a firm knowledge of the person’s behaviors before and after the injury.

A Look at the Denmark Study

The study Denmark recently published is significant because it analyzed a larger group of data than similar research in the past. It is one of the first studies of its kind to specifically analyze the potential link between TBI and suicide. Researchers looked at 34,529 individuals who died by suicide to see if people with TBIs had a higher rate than those without. The study used nationwide patient registers too look for TBI diagnoses, skull fractures without TBI, and severe traumatic brain injuries.

Of all the individuals in the study who died by suicide, 10.2% (3,536 people) had medical contact relating to brain injuries: 2,701 had mild TBIs, 174 had skull fractures, and 661 suffered from severe TBIs. The suicide rate for people with TBI was 41 per 100,000 person-years. The suicide rate for non-TBI individuals, on the other hand, was 20 per 100,000 person-years. This translates into an increased risk of suicide at an incident rate of 1.9. In other words, individuals with traumatic brain injuries may be nearly twice as at risk of suicide as those without.

The Denmark researchers analyzed the data of more than 7.4 million people aged 10 and over; 567,823 of whom had received treatment for traumatic brain injuries. The lead author of the study, Trine Madsen, says, “Head trauma can affect the brain’s functions, cause psychological problems, and consequently increase the risk of suicide.” The absolute risk of suicide is still low – Madsen notes that of everyone in the study treated for a TBI, only 0.62% committed suicide.

What Does This Connection Mean for TBI Victims?

The large Denmark study and the conclusion that a TBI can almost double the risk of suicide is alarming for people living with TBIs today. The study showed the more severe the brain injury, the greater the risk of committing suicide. People with severe TBIs were about 2.4 times as likely as those without TBIs to take their own lives. Long-term psychiatric damage from a TBI might not just change patients’ behaviors – it could put their lives at risk in the form of increased odds of suicide. This developing theory could change how doctors, brain injury attorneys, insurance companies, and others treat traumatic brain injury accidents and survivors.

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