Study explores suicide risk for people with disabilities

Marlow, Nicole
Dr. Nicole Marlow

People with disabilities are believed to be at higher risk for suicide than people without disabilities, yet little is known about variations in risk by disability type. A University of Florida College of Public Health and Health Professions study published in the Journal of Psychiatric Research provides new insight on suicidal behaviors by different disability types.

Among their findings: People with cognitive, complex activity (defined as functional limitations in self-care and/or independent living tasks) and multiple limitations had the highest risk of suicidal thoughts, suicide planning and suicide attempts.

“These results have important implications for developing specific suicide prevention strategies that help screen, assess and treat people with disabilities at risk of suicide at the earliest possible time,” said the study’s lead author Nicole Marlow, Ph.D., M.S.P.H., a research assistant professor in the department of health services research, management and policy at UF PHHP. “We hope our findings will help policymakers recognize the critical need for more systemic supports for people with disabilities, such as affordable and accessible medical care and improved social services, enhanced access to assistive technology and/or environmental adaptations to mitigate difficulty with complex activities.”

For the study, researchers analyzed data from the 2015-2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, which includes questions on suicidal ideation, plans and attempts. The dataset included 36,500 adults with at least one functional disability. The team found that among all adults with a disability, 6.6% reported suicidal ideation only, 2.1% reported suicide planning without attempt, and 1.5% reported suicide attempt. Participants with a cognitive limitation, a complex activity limitation, or two or more limitations were more likely than participants with other disability types to report suicidal thoughts, plans or attempts.

“It is critical that primary care providers, emergency care providers and providers who specialize in working with disability populations are adequately prepared to screen and respond to suicidal thoughts and behaviors as presented by people with disabilities,” Marlow said.

The findings also suggest broad education needs, Marlow said.

“People with disabilities need accessible education about suicide prevention and accessing resources,” she said. “Professionals and family members who provide support for people with disabilities also need education on how to identify mental health problems and how to access supports.”

In addition to Marlow, the study authors include Zhigang Xie, Ph.D., a recent graduate of the UF doctoral program in health services research; Rebecca Tanner, M.S., research coordinator; Molly Jacobs, Ph.D., a PHHP associate professor of health services research, management and policy; Michaela Hogan, D.N.P., a UF clinical assistant professor of nursing; Thomas Joiner Jr., Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Florida State University; and Anne Kirby, Ph.D., an associate professor of occupational & recreational therapies at the University of Utah.