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Keywords:

  • bipolar disorder;
  • lithium;
  • major affective disorders;
  • meta-analysis;
  • suicide

Objectives:  To update and extend comparisons of rates of suicides and suicide attempts among patients with major affective disorders with versus without long-term lithium treatment.

Methods:  Broad searching yielded 45 studies providing rates of suicidal acts during lithium treatment, including 34 also providing rates without lithium treatment. We scored study quality, tested between-study variance, and examined suicidal rates on versus off lithium by meta-analytic methods to determine risk ratios (RRs) and 95% confidence intervals (CI).

Results:  In 31 studies suitable for meta-analysis, involving a total of 85,229 person-years of risk-exposure, the overall risk of suicides and attempts was five times less among lithium-treated subjects than among those not treated with lithium (RR = 4.91, 95% CI 3.82–6.31, p < 0.0001). Similar effects were found with other meta-analytic methods, as well as for completed versus attempted suicide, and for bipolar versus major mood disorder patients. Studies with higher quality ratings, including randomized, controlled trials, involved shorter exposures with somewhat lesser lithium superiority. Omitting one very large study or those involving lithium-discontinuation had little effect on the results. The incidence-ratio of attempts-to-suicides increased 2.5 times with lithium-treatment, indicating reduced lethality of suicidal acts. There was no indication of bias toward reporting positive findings, nor were outcomes significantly influenced by publication-year or study size.

Conclusions:  Risks of completed and attempted suicide were consistently lower, by approximately 80%, during treatment of bipolar and other major affective disorder patients with lithium for an average of 18 months. These benefits were sustained in randomized as well as open clinical trials.