Study: For People With Epilepsy, Suicide Rate Is 22 Percent Higher

July 13, 2016 Updated: July 13, 2016

People with epilepsy have a 22 percent higher suicide rate than the general population, a recent study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says.

Epilepsy is a chronic disorder in which individuals suffer from recurrent, unprovoked seizures. Many with epilepsy have more than one type of seizure and may have other symptoms of neurological issues.

The overall suicide rate in the United States has dramatically increased in recent years and is now the tenth leading cause of death. A report released in April by the CDC shows a 24 percent increase in suicide in the general population from 1999 to 2014.

For the recent study, which was published in the journal Epilepsy & Behavior, the CDC used data from 2003–2011 to find out how often and in which conditions suicide occurred among individuals with epilepsy. The report is the first state-based study in the country to examine the suicide rate and suicide risk factors among people with epilepsy.

An average of 17 out of 100,000 people with epilepsy aged 10 years and older died from suicide each year between 2003 and 2011, compared to 14 out of 100,000 in the general population. In that timeframe, adults aged 40–49 years with epilepsy committed suicide at a rate of 29 percent, compared to 22 percent among those without the disorder. Suicides among those with epilepsy increased steadily from 2005 through 2010.

Individuals with the disorder were more likely to have died from suicide in houses, apartments, or residential institutions, compared to those without epilepsy, and were twice as likely to poison themselves—38 percent compared to 17 percent.

Overall, race, ethnicity, and marital status did not differ among those with and without epilepsy who committed suicide, although one-third of the suicides occurred among individuals with the least education.

“The suicide rate is higher among people with epilepsy compared to the general population, so suicide prevention efforts are urgently needed to prevent these deaths,” said Rosemarie Kobau, a health scientist in CDC’s Division of Population Health and a co-author on the report said in a statement.

“Caregivers of people with epilepsy and other members of the public can participate in programs such as Mental Health First Aid, an evidence-based program available in many U.S. communities that teaches people about mental illness symptoms, and how to recognize and intervene during a mental health crisis,” she added.

Raising Awareness

To Pamela Conford, the executive director of the Epilepsy Foundation of Metropolitan New York, a local affiliate, awareness on epilepsy is key.

Her organization tries to raise awareness about epilepsy through social media, awareness walks, free Epilepsy 101 training to schools and employers, as well as reaching out to neurologists in the area.

Conford says anxiety and depression is common among those with epilepsy, which is why her clinic screens individuals, and have a high risk plan in place.

The local clinic also offers help to family members of individuals with the disorder.

“Parents are not sure when their child is going to have a seizure and they’re under tremendous amount of stress,” says Conford, adding that epilepsy is most common among the very young and the very old.  

She notes that a family’s reaction to an epilepsy diagnosis can make it harder for an individual if the family lacks understanding.

More Research Needed

Suicide is a “very real consequence” of epilepsy, said Phil Gattone, president and CEO of the Epilepsy Foundation, a national nonprofit that offers resources to those with the disorder.

He said the study is a “magnifying glass on the rate of suicide in people with epilepsy.”

Gattone says more research is needed to better understand the different factors that could lead to suicide, which may include accessing health care, stigma, or economic factors. He also notes that the problem is not only seen in the United States, but also worldwide.

“People struggle to get the help they need,” he said, adding that health professionals and providers should ask their patients about suicide and depression.

Gattone, who has a son with epilepsy, says those with the disorder sometimes feel like nobody understands what they are going through, but they shouldn’t feel like they’re in the fight by themselves.

“You’re not alone, we’re here,” says Gattone.

The Epilepsy Foundation provides multiple resources, a 24-hour helpline everyday of the year, and information online. The staff has also received suicide intervention training, and has had calls from those who have received suicide-related calls.

For more information on epilepsy visit or call the Epilepsy Foundation hotline: 1-800-332-1000.

If you need help, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255