Monday, 11 December 2017

On hormonal contraception and suicide risk

I'll freely admit that the material covered in the paper by Charlotte Wessel Skovlund and colleagues [1] suggesting that: "Use of hormonal contraception was positively associated with subsequent suicide attempt and suicide" is (a) slightly outside of the typical remit of this blog and (b) not something that I'm particularly qualified to talk about. I was however minded to discuss this paper in the context that previous work from this research group has *linked* hormonal contraception use with depression [2] (see here for some of the media on this past paper) and in the more general context of blogging occasions where depression and risk of suicide have been discussed here (see here).

Similar to their last research outing where hormonal contraception - 'birth control methods that act on the endocrine system' - was analysed, some of those rather important Scandinavian population registries were the source study material. Denmark was the country of choice and "a nationwide prospective cohort study of all women in Denmark who had no psychiatric diagnoses, antidepressant use, or hormonal contraceptive use before age 15 and who turned 15 during the study period, which extended from 1996 through 2013." You'll note the words 'no psychiatric diagnoses, antidepressant use' were included, illustrating how researchers were already mindful of the role that depression has in such extreme behaviour(s). Researchers collected information "about use of hormonal contraception" and also suicide attempts and completions. This, based on resources such as the Danish National Prescription Register, illustrating once again the long Scandinavian tradition of "creating nationwide administrative and health registries" [3].

Results: "Compared with women who never used hormonal contraceptives, the relative risk among current and recent users was 1.97 (95% CI=1.85–2.10) for suicide attempt and 3.08 (95% CI=1.34–7.08) for suicide." I should put that in some context in terms of hundreds of thousands of women - "nearly half a million women" - who were tracked over the course of the study, and how nearly 7000 first suicide attempts were recorded and 71 [completed] suicides registered. The numbers were comparatively small; bearing in mind that behind each figure is a person, a life and a family.

Taking into account the tenet 'correlation is not the same as causation' and indeed, appreciating how complex and individual suicidal thoughts and behaviour can be, these are potentially important data minus any scaremongering. Certainly these are findings worthy of quite a lot more study, particularly in light of the large population included for study mimicking the authors' previous chosen study design, alongside the prospective nature of their investigation.

Mechanisms of effect? I don't think anyone is quite there yet with regards to definitive hows-and-whys. I note that others have talked about a possible *correlation* between elevations in progesterone and suicide attempts [4] but such observations need to be treated cautiously at this point, again reiterating how complex and individual the processes leading someone to suicidal thoughts and behaviours are. Skovlund and colleagues did talk about suicide risk potentially differing according to different contraceptive formulations used: "Risk estimates for suicide attempt were 1.91... for oral combined products, 2.29... for oral progestin-only products, 2.58... for vaginal ring, and 3.28... for patch" potentially suggesting that specific products might have differing risk profiles. This is something else that could perhaps help isolate any pertinent mechanisms.

Questions remain, not least: Are there particular groups of women, based on genetics or other biology, that may be at increased risk of depression and/or suicide when taking such contraception? The answer: we don't yet know. Bearing in mind that in this, and their other work on hormonal contraception and depression, age seemed to be an important variable as per the observation: "Adolescent women experienced the highest relative risk" thus representing a good place to start. And on the topic of adolescent women perhaps having an elevated risk, I might also draw your attention to the findings reported by Jean Twenge and colleagues [5] who discussed another potentially important variable to consider: "Since 2010, adolescents spent more time on social media and electronic devices, activities positively correlated with depressive symptoms and suicide-related outcomes." I wonder if this is something that perhaps needs to be controlled for in future studies?

To close, there's always someone to talk to (see here) if needs be, and please, talk to your medical professional (not Dr Google) if you're at all concerned by these latest findings.


[1] Skovlund CW. et al. Association of Hormonal Contraception With Suicide Attempts and Suicides. Am J Psychiatry. 2017 Nov 17:appiajp201717060616.

[2] Skovlund CW. et al. Association of Hormonal Contraception With Depression. JAMA Psychiatry. 2016 Nov 1;73(11):1154-1162.

[3] Pottegård A. et al. Data Resource Profile: The Danish National Prescription Registry. Int J Epidemiol. 2017 Jun 1;46(3):798-798f.

[4] Mousavi SG. et al. Recurrent suicide attempt and female hormones. Advanced Biomedical Research. 2014;3:201. doi:10.4103/2277-9175.142046

[5] Twenge J. et al. Increases in Depressive Symptoms, Suicide-Related Outcomes, and Suicide Rates Among U.S. Adolescents After 2010 and Links to Increased New Media Screen Time. Clinical Psychological Science. 2017. Nov 14.


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