Suicide rates twice as high among patients with terminal cancers, heart disease and COPD


Terminally-ill Britons are twice as likely to commit suicide as healthy people, official data for England shows.  

A first of its kind analysis by the Office for National Statistics found the risk spikes sharply after the devastating blow of a diagnosis but slows over time. 

People with a low-survival cancer or heart and lung diseases are up to 2.4 times more likely to take their life in the year after being diagnosed, the report said.

Between 2017 and 2020, there were around 22 suicides per 100,000 terminal cancer patients compared to nine per 100,000 in a control group of healthy people. 

The rate was similar among those with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), a group of lung conditions that cause breathing difficulties.

Around 16 suicides per 100,000 patients with coronary heart disease were recorded in the year after a diagnosis, compared to 8.5 in people of a similar age, education and level of income who did not have the conditions.  

More than 1.7million people were diagnosed with one of the big three killers in England during the analysis, which was commissioned in April last year by then-Health Secretary Matt Hancock.

Between 2017 and 2020, there were around 22 suicides per 100,000 terminal cancer patients compared to nine per 100,000 in a control group of healthy people. The rate was similar among those with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), a group of lung conditions that cause breathing difficulties. Around 16 suicides per 100,000 patients with coronary heart disease were recorded in the year after a diagnosis compared to 8.5 in people of a similar age, education and level of income who did not have the conditions

The first of its kind analysis by the Office for National Statistics found the risk spikes sharply after the devastating blow of a diagnosis but slows over time

The first of its kind analysis by the Office for National Statistics found the risk spikes sharply after the devastating blow of a diagnosis but slows over time

The ONS linked death certificates to the 2011 Census and NHS records between January 1, 2017, and March 31, 2020.

In that time there were 17,195 people who died due to suicide, of which 2.6 per cent also had COPD, 2.7 per cent had heart disease and 0.3 per cent had a deadly cancer, including pancreatic, lung, throat and liver cancers.

The health conditions were chosen because in most cases the diseases are progressive and cannot be reversed by treatment, the ONS said.

‘In many instances, people diagnosed with these conditions would meet the definition of having a terminal illness,’ the report added. 

The rates among patients with the three conditions were compared to healthy people from similar backgrounds, known as a matched control group.

Results showed that one year after diagnosis for low-survival cancers, the suicide rate was 22.2 per 100,000 people.

That was 2.4 times higher than the suicide rate for matched controls, 9.1 deaths per 100,000 people. 

There were 23.6 suicides per 100,000 COPD patients 12 months after a diagnosis, compared to 9.7 in the healthy group, another 2.4-fold difference.

The suicide rate for patients with heart disease was 16.4, nearly two times higher than for the control group, 8.5.

The campaign group Dignity in Dying said the data shows that instances of terminally ill people taking their own lives ‘are not isolated tragedies but warning signs’ of serious patient safety implications under the current law.

Chief executive, Sarah Wootton, said: ‘The data today confirms that the blanket ban on assisted dying is not only uncompassionate and unequal, but deeply unsafe for our terminally ill citizens, and it must act as a clarion call for Parliament to examine the full impact of the current law.

‘This is not simply a matter for debate but of patient safety, of the utmost urgency.’

Marjorie Wallace, chief executive of the mental health charity SANE, added: ‘It is unforgiveable and inhumane that people who are dying should have to resort to ending their lives alone and abandoned, but this data indicates that this the case for many under the current law.

‘For those who are nearing the end of life and wish to ease the dying process, their motivation is to shorten death, not shorten life, and therefore traditional suicide prevention measures are not an appropriate response.’

Care Not Killing, a UK alliance which opposes a law change, said the figures do not demonstrate the need for a change in the law on assisted dying.

Chief executive, Dr Gordon Macdonald, said the numbers instead suggest that ‘much more work needs to be done to support dying and vulnerable people by providing them with universal access to treatment for both their physical and psychological needs’.

He continued: ‘This means extending high quality palliative care to all those who need it, not reaching for a cheap short-term solution of facilitating a rise in people committing suicide or having their lives ended by the state.’

For confidential support, call the Samaritans on 116123 or visit samaritans.org 

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