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A review of risk factors associated with suicide in adults with intellectual disability

Emma Mollison (Institute of Psychiatry, King's College London, London, UK)
Eddie Chaplin (Research and Strategy Lead, based at South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust, Institute of Psychiatry, London, UK and King's College London, London, UK)
Lisa Underwood (Post-Doctoral Research Worker, based at Forensic and Neurodevelopmental Sciences, Institute of Psychiatry, King's College London, London, UK)
Jane McCarthy (Consultant Psychiatrist in Intellectual Disability, based at East London NHS Foundation Trust and Institute of Psychiatry, King's College London, London, UK)

Advances in Mental Health and Intellectual Disabilities

ISSN: 2044-1282

Article publication date: 26 August 2014



Suicide is one of the top three leading causes of death amongst those aged between 15 and 44 years; and tenth leading cause of death in the wider population. The base rates of suicide, suicide attempts and suicide-related behaviours are comparably low in the general population with between 17 and 68 per cent of individuals who successfully commit suicide having made a previous attempt to take their own life. As recently as the 1980's it was still a widely held belief that individuals with intellectual disability (ID) did not have the cognitive capacity to experience mental health problems and this acted as a “buffer” against suicidal behaviour. The paper aims to discuss these issues.


The literature review covered the time period 1993-2013 and returned 117 studies, 77 of which related to individuals with ID, 37 of which related to adults. Following screening titles and abstracts 28 articles were removed. A total of nine studies were found to be eligible for inclusion in the review. A further two studies examining suicide in adolescents (up to adulthood) with ID were also considered. From the eligible studies the following information was considered: study design, sample size, strengths, limitations and the risk factors associated with an increased risk of suicide.


The suicide risk factors identified during the review were found to be in keeping with the general population and included a diagnosis of clinical depression, history of self-harm, unemployment, loneliness, unemployment, an increased need for support from others, early onset mental illness and being treatment resistive.


Suicide in individuals with ID is a topic that has not received a great deal of attention from professionals and clinicians alike. People with ID have higher rates of mental health problems and therefore it could be argued that they are more likely to be at risk. This study aims to look at risk factors specific to people with ID for clinicians to consider in their daily practice.



Mollison, E., Chaplin, E., Underwood, L. and McCarthy, J. (2014), "A review of risk factors associated with suicide in adults with intellectual disability", Advances in Mental Health and Intellectual Disabilities, Vol. 8 No. 5, pp. 302-308.



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