Do antidepressants increase suicide attempts? Do they have other risks?

By Diana Zuckerman, Ph.D., Sarah Miller, RN, Megan Cole,
Madeline Levin, MPH and Nicholas J. Jury, Ph.D.
Updated 2015


Antidepressant medications are widely prescribed in an effort to reduce the debilitating impact of depression and to reduce the risk of suicide.  However, a growing body of research indicates that the risks of the medications outweigh the benefits for many patients.

When a person’s depression starts to lift, he or she may feel less hopeless and helpless.  That sounds like an improvement, but when people feel less helpless but still feel depressed, they may think about suicide as a way out, whereas before they were too immobilized to make a suicide plan.  For that reason, a decrease in the symptoms of depression can increase the risk of suicidal thoughts or actions.  That risk is well known by mental health specialists, and can occur regardless of the type of treatment that a patient is receiving, or even if the patient is feeling less depressed without any treatment.

As antidepressants became more commonly prescribed for anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder, the reports of patients’ suicidal thoughts and actions became more worrisome to physicians and family members.  If a depressed person on antidepressants is suicidal, that is not so surprising, but if someone who was not depressed and taking antidepressants for other reasons becomes suicidal, that raises questions about the safety of these medications.  Researchers found evidence that individuals taking antidepressant medication may be at even higher risk of suicide than individuals whose depression is easing for other reasons.  That controversy has not yet been completely resolved.

Antidepressants and children

The risks of antidepressants first became clear in research on children, and in the fall of 2004, the FDA issued a Public Health Advisory warning that children and adolescents taking antidepressant medications might experience increased suicidal thoughts and behaviors. In June 2005, this warning was extended to include young adults up to age 25. In fact, for children and adolescents, studies showed that patients taking antidepressants had nearly double the rate of suicidal thoughts and actions, in comparison to patients taking a sugar pill. This prompted the FDA to require antidepressant drug manufacturers to add a “black box” to the label warning about the increased risk for children. The warning also says that children and adolescents taking the types of antidepressant known as “serotonin reuptake inhibitors” (SSRIs) should be carefully watched for increased depression, suicidal thoughts or behaviors, or “unusual changes in behavior, such as sleeplessness, agitation, or withdrawal from normal social situations.” Placing a black box around a warning, similar to those for cigarettes, is the strongest type of warnings about risks that the FDA requires, and indicates FDA’s great concern.1

It’s important to note that the antidepressant Paxil has never been approved for children under 18, and that research shows it has no benefit and can be harmful to anyone under 18. The U.S. government is suing GSK pharmaceutical company for misleading physicians and patients about the effectiveness of Paxil in children, and covering up suicides and suicidal behavior.2

A 2015 Swedish study of their entire population ages 15 and older reported that 11,225 out of 856,493 (1.3%) teens and adults taking SSRIs were convicted of a violent crime compared to 40,384 out of 7.1 million individuals (0.6%) of the same age not taking SSRIs.3  The risk of being convicted of a violent crime was the highest among the youngest age group: 3.3% of SSRI patients between the ages of 15 and 24 years old were convicted of a violent crime. 77% of these convictions (2,169) were in males in that age group who were taking an SSRI. However, when comparing five of the most prescribed SSRIs (fluoxetine, citalopram, paroxetine, sertraline, and escitalopram), only sertraline (Zoloft) increased the risk of a violent crime conviction.

Antidepressant use among adults

In response to these concerns, researchers brought together data from short-term trials to see if antidepressants increased suicide risk in adults over 25 as well.4  They found no significant increase in risk of suicide for adults taking antidepressants. On the contrary, depressed adults taking antidepressants appear to be somewhat less likely to have suicidal thoughts and attempt suicide than depressed adults who do not take them. A 2011 study in the United Kingdom (UK), which included over 60,000 patients between the ages of 65 and 100, did not find a significant increase in suicide risk for adults over 65 who take antidepressants.5  However, the study also reported that mirtazapine and venlafaxine, two antidepressants that are not SSRIs, were associated with 16% of the 496 attempted suicides or self-harm.

A different UK study published in 2015 that included more than 238,000 adults ages 20 to 64 years of age reported that patients ages 40-49 taking mirtazapine and venlafaxine were almost three times as likely to commit suicide within the next 5 years and almost twice as likely to attempt suicide/self-harm compared to patients in the same age group taking a SSRI.6  The 50-64 year olds taking other antidepressants were almost six times as likely to commit suicide and more than twice as likely to attempt suicide or self-harm compared to patients in the same age group taking an SSRI.

While some studies have found certain antidepressants to be associated with a higher risk of suicide, other studies have not found this to be true. For example, a study of almost 300,000 adults ages 18 and older who started taking antidepressants between 1997 and 2005 found no meaningful difference in risk for suicide when comparing the different types of antidepressants.7  The discrepant study results may be due to study design and prescribing practices. For example, since antidepressants like venlafaxine and mirtazapine are often not tried unless SSRIs are not effective, the people who take them may have depression that is more resistant to treatment. Therefore, it may be the depression itself that is the most likely cause of a suicidal attempt, rather than the antidepressant.

Similarly, this study found no differences in suicide attempts or rates among children, adolescents, or young adults taking different antidepressants, which is why the FDA includes the same black box warning on all antidepressants given to children and adolescents. (See the list at

In summary, whether an antidepressant increases or lowers the risk of suicide seems to depend on the type of antidepressant being taken, the individual’s response to treatment, and the age of the person taking them. The different results for children, young adults, elderly adults, and other adults suggest that differences in metabolism may be affecting the safety of these medications.  If so, that could also have implications for other types of patients that might be at higher or lower risk, such as particular racial or ethnic groups that may metabolize these drugs differently. Studies have shown that genetic differences affect how well antidepressants work for different people and how well people are able to tolerate them.8,9  Unfortunately, studies comparing the effectiveness of different antidepressants do not have enough participants from racial and ethnic minorities to draw conclusions about which drugs work best for which groups of people.

Birth defects 

A 2015 study included over 2.2 million infants born in Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden, of which more than 36,000 were exposed to an SSRI during pregnancy, reported that SSRIs decreased the risk of heart defects and did not affect neurological defects.10  In contrast, a previous study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that Paxil (paroxetine) and Prozac (fluoxetine) taken by pregnant women increase the risks for heart and neurological defects in newborn babies.11  The study included over 27,000 mothers of infants who had taken an SSRI starting one month prior to pregnancy, and through the third month of pregnancy.  Women who took Paxil were 2.5 to 3.5 times more likely to have a newborn with a heart or neurological defect. Those women taking Prozac were 1.9 to 2.0 times more likely to have a newborn with a heart or neurological defect.

Risks vs. benefits

Antidepressants have been widely prescribed for anxiety and other psychological problems in addition to depression, and it is important to weigh the likely benefits against the known risks.  Whether for children or adults, antidepressants have other risks in addition to the possible risk of suicide.  Common side effects include nausea, anxiety, restlessness, decreased sex drive, dizziness, weight gain or loss, tremors, sweating, sleepiness, fatigue, dry mouth, diarrhea, constipation, and headaches.  More worrisome effects include increased hostility, anger and aggression, insomnia, and feeling of panic. All individuals taking antidepressants should be carefully watched for changes in behavior or suicidal thoughts, especially if it is the person’s first time taking antidepressants.  If you notice these behaviors in yourself, a friend, or a family member, it is important to contact a doctor immediately.

It is also important to be aware of the side effects of other drugs that are sometimes used for depression.  For example, Seroquel (quetiapine) and Abilify (aripiprazole) are widely prescribed medications that were originally approved by FDA for schizophrenia.  They were also approved by the FDA for psychosis from the manic phase of bipolar disorder (also called manic depression).  In a controversial decision, the FDA then approved them for use in depression-but only for patients who are taking other antidepressants at the same time and for whom antidepressant medication alone was ineffective.  These antipsychotic drugs sometimes help with anxiety and sleeping problems because they can have a sedative effect, making it dangerous for patients to drive or use machinery.  It is not clear if these antipsychotic medications help with depressed mood, but insomnia and anxiety are symptoms of depression too.  In addition to the questionable benefits, these drugs have serious side effects, such as dramatic weight gain (and potentially diabetes) and “sudden cardiac death.”

Other popular antidepressants have other risks.  Cymbalta (duloxetine) is a serotonin norepinephrine re-uptake inhibitor (SNRI) that has been linked to liver failure. Zoloft (sertraline, an SSRI) is associated with higher rates of diarrhea than other antidepressants, and Effexor (venlafaxine), another SNRI, is more likely to increase blood pressure, heart rate, and cause nausea, and in one study was linked to gastrointestinal bleeding.12,13

A study that included over 370,000 women reported that non-depressed women taking SSRIs are more than 50% more likely to have a bone fracture than non-depressed women who are not taking them.14  Another study published in 2012 that included results from thirteen other studies, reported that men and women who take SSRIs are 1.7 times more likely to develop a bone fracture.15

In addition to these potentially serious risks, most antidepressants cannot be combined with certain drugs or alcohol.  One study found that healthy, depressed women using SSRI’s and tricyclic antidepressants are three times more likely to suffer from sudden cardiac death (SCD) than healthy, depressed women not taking antidepressants. It is not clear, though, from the study whether these women suffered from more severe depression (which is a risk for heart disease) and therefore were more likely to take antidepressants or whether they died because the antidepressants caused changes in their heart rhythms.16

Antidepressants can negatively interact with many other drugs, including over-the-counter drugs such as cold medicines and pain killers.

Are there effective treatments for depression that are not so risky?  A type of therapy called cognitive behavioral therapy has been found to be very effective.  It trains the patient to think about their shortcomings or problems in a different way, helping them to focus less on the helpless and hopeless feelings of depression and more on what they are doing well.

So, although antidepressants may improve your life, do not forget that taking them means subjecting yourself to many potential side effects and often serious risk


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