By Kaitlyn Pfiester
Clinically reviewed by Dr. Gayle Jensen-Savoie
People hear plenty about both ADHD and suicide. But most people hear much less about the link between the two. And sadly, there is a distinct association between ADHD and suicide. Some studies have shown people with ADHD have more than a five-fold increase in chances of suicidal behaviors.
September is Suicide Prevention Awareness Month. That makes this month an especially good time to better understand suicide and its links with mental health issues, especially ADHD. Here are some details:
Overall stats on suicide
The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention outlines a number of figures relating to suicide, based on information from the federal Centers for Disease Control and
Prevention, or the CDC. It says 1.2 million Americans attempted suicide in 2020 — the most recent year for which figures are available. Almost 46,000 Americans — 45,979 — actually committed suicide in 2020.
The most common cause of suicide is the presence of psychiatric diseases or mental illness, according to the National Institutes of Health. Depression, substance abuse, and psychosis are leading causes; anxiety, ADHD and mood disorders also may contribute to a person being at a higher risk.
What the research says about ADHD and suicide ideation
A 2021 study of more than 5,600 Chinese medical students in the journal BMC Psychiatry found that participants who had the predominantly inattentive type of ADHD “had more than five-fold increased odds of suicidal behaviors.”
In another study, published in 2011 in the journal Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica, more than half of the adolescent patients involved with ADHD had suicidal ideation, or thoughts about suicide. The study also found that one-third of the adult patients with ADHD struggled with suicidal ideation.
Why ADHD increases the risk of suicide
One reason that ADHD may increase the risk of suicide is because of the hyperactivity and impulsivity that comes with ADHD. People also sometimes have ADHD along with other mental illnesses, which can lead to higher chances of suicide.
When someone is considering suicide, a focus on death or self-harm is often one of the first signs. For someone with ADHD, these intrusive thoughts can be much harder to fight off.
Gender, suicide, and ADHD
ADHD is diagnosed more than twice as often in boys than girls, according to the CDC. The CDC and other experts say ADHD may be significantly under-diagnosed in girls because of how symptoms present in girls versus boys.
Studies generally show there is no gender difference in suicidal ideation in people with ADHD. One 2014 study in the journal JAMA Psychiatry did find that females with ADHD were almost twice as likely as males — 5.4 percent to 2.9 percent — to actually attempt suicide.
Signs someone might be thinking about suicide
It’s important to watch for signs when someone might be seriously thinking about suicide. Here are several:
- Talking about suicide, even jokingly
Some people naturally have a dark sense of humor; but it’s important to understand when that might be indicating something more serious. Members of Generation Z — people born from 1997 through 2012 — tend to cover up issues using memes and jokes as a way to cope with the devastating impacts of mental illness. In this environment, it can be difficult to tell when to take someone seriously.
Just one joke or comment is enough of a sign to have a serious conversation with someone.
On the other hand, if you are the one making the jokes, check in with yourself. Seriously ask yourself why you made that joke. And maybe seek the help of others.
- Feeling or acting as though everything is about to end
Seeing behavior in a loved one who is acting like everything in their life is about to end is terrifying. Don’t ignore it. This could appear in an out-of-character text, phone call, or letter. If the underlying tone is goodbye, even if people don’t say it directly, contact emergency help immediately. Safe is better than sorry.
- Cutting contact
Cutting personal contact with others is a tale-tell sign of mental illness in general and a cause for concern. Plenty of people classify themselves as introverts and enjoy stints of time alone. But checking on them is still important, especially if it goes on for longer than usual or if you know they are dealing with something difficult.
- Making or talking about a plan
If people mention a plan for taking their own life, it’s time for emergency help.
This is true for everyone. But people with ADHD fall into an even more extreme category. As mentioned above, having ADHD means a person often does things on impulse and without much thought. This is extremely dangerous if they’re thinking about suicide — and even more so if a plan is already in place.
If you or a loved one has reached this point, contact emergency services immediately or call the suicide and crisis lifeline at 988. This line is available to call or text at any time throughout the United States.
How you can help prevent suicide attempts
There are ways that loved ones, friends and acquaintances can help prevent suicides. Here are some important tips:
- Be willing to talk about it and take it seriously.
Become a safe space for those who are struggling. You can do this by not shying away from the topic when it comes up. Simply being a listening ear can do wonders for those fighting back inner demons.
- Find professional help in your area.
Familiarize yourself with professional help in your area. Psychology Today’s website is a great place to start if you’re looking for a therapist. If you’re looking for help with ADHD, you can also contact us.
- For parents, especially: Display crisis hotline numbers.
Parents, especially, should display suicide and crisis hotline numbers on the refrigerator or wherever your teen or child is likely to see it.
- Err on the side of caution.
When it comes to suicidal ideation, suicide attempts or self-harm, safe is always better than sorry. If you are struggling, or if someone you know is struggling, reach out for help.
How to help a loved one who is in crisis
When someone feels like taking their own life, there is more to it than what reaches the surface. Suicidal ideation and self-harm are symptoms of hopelessness. They are not signs of weakness, lack of intelligence or selfishness.
In these situations, it’s crucial not to lay blame, but to instead empathize with people’s circumstances and feelings. Validate their feelings while also letting them know that their self-endangering actions are not the answer.
If possible, let them know you are going to contact professional help because you care about them. Suicidal ideation is a dangerous situation, so don’t take it lightly. Trust your instincts, and do your best to let the other person know you are there for them.
If you are considering suicide or self-harm, please call 911 or contact the suicide and crisis lifeline at 988.