While scientists warn that suicide risk is higher in military veterans and professional athletes grappling with concussion, new Canadian research suggests the risk extends to the general public, too.
In a new Canadian study published Monday, doctors warn that Canadians who have suffered from a concussion triple their risk of suicide in the years following an injury, compared to their peers who don’t suffer any traumatic head injuries.
“A history of concussion – even a remote history of concussion – we think is important to know about. And it’s not just in iconic professional athletes or military veterans. It’s everyday Canadians going about their normal business,” lead researcher, Dr. Donald Redelmeier, told Global News.
Redelmeier is a senior scientist at the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences and Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre. For his research, he and his team tracked the long-term health of 235,000 concussion patients in Ontario. The patients – typically a middle-aged man, about 41 years old and living in a major city – faced minor concussions, meaning they weren’t hospitalized overnight for their injuries.
Turns out, 667 people died from suicide after their concussion.
Nine out of 100,000 Canadians die from suicide annually. Redelmeier says based on his findings, 32 concussion patients per 100,000 died committed suicide. If they faced a second concussion, the risk increases to 42 suicides per 100,000 annually.
The time between concussion and suicide was about six years. Each additional concussion increased risk of suicide by 30 per cent.
“It’s a substantial increase in risk and it underscores the need for prevention, to wear protective gear, to get yourself trained, to stay sober, follow the rules and don’t be reckless,” Redelmeier said.
The concussions were divided into weekday and weekend incidents to draw a line between recreational and occupational injuries.
Those injured on weekends accounted for 148 suicides – or about 39 per 100,000 per year, which is four times higher than the general population.
The people studied had no prior suicide attempts, prior hospitalizations or previous psychiatric disorders, the study notes.
It’s unclear why concussion raises the risk of suicide but Redelmeier told Global News that there are possible mechanisms at play.
“One explanation is that concussion causes a lasting injury to the brain that doesn’t allow for recovery and subsequently leads to depression, irritability and impulsivity…not initially…the time delay is usually a couple of years,” he explained.
In other cases, concussion could be a marker for other troubles that surface later on in your life. Finally, concussion patients don’t always give themselves enough time for a full recovery, leading to frustration, disappointment and confusion as to why they aren’t picking up the pieces in their daily lives as smoothly as they thought they would.
Concussions that occurred on weekends may lead to higher suicide risks because patients could encounter guilt or self-blame if the incident occurred during a “misadventure.” Weekday concussions were typically tied to employment hazards.
Redelmeier says Canadians and their doctors have two distinct jobs: for starters, patients need to tell their doctors they suffered from concussion or a head injury.
If you had an allergic reaction to penicillin five years ago, it’d be your obligation to let your doctor know. The same adage applies to head injuries, Redelmeier said. Patients also need to make sure they properly address their concussion and give themselves enough recovery time.
Doctors need to pay attention to lingering symptoms of a concussion. In the study, half of those who died from a suicide visited a physician in the last week of their lives.
“But that was almost always not the physician who diagnosed them and it was a missed opportunity to prevent a bad situation from having become worse,” he said.