Conference Coverage

‘Striking’ rate of mental health comorbidities in epilepsy


AT AES 2022

About 21% of teens newly diagnosed with epilepsy experience suicidal ideation, and the percentage jumps to 31% within 3 years, new research reveals.

“We hope these results inspire epileptologists and neurologists to both recognize and screen for suicide ideation and behaviors in their adolescent patients,” said study investigator Hadley Greenwood, a third-year medical student at New York University.

The new data should also encourage providers “to become more comfortable” providing support to patients, “be that by increasing their familiarity with prescribing different antidepressants or by being well versed in how to connect patients to resources within their community,” said Mr. Greenwood.

The findings were presented here at the annual meeting of the American Epilepsy Society.

Little research

Previous studies have reported on the prevalence of suicidality as well as depression and anxiety among adults with epilepsy. “We wanted to look at adolescents because there’s much less in the literature out there about psychiatric comorbidity, and specifically suicidality, in this population,” said Mr. Greenwood.

Researchers used data from the Human Epilepsy Project, a study that collected data from 34 sites in the United States, Canada, Europe, and Australia from 2012 to 2017.

From a cohort of more than 400 participants, researchers identified 67 patients aged 11-17 years who were enrolled within 4 months of starting treatment for focal epilepsy.

Participants completed the Columbia–Suicide Severity Rating Scale (C-SSRS) at enrollment and at follow-ups over 36 months. The C-SSRS measures suicidal ideation and severity, said Mr. Greenwood.

“It’s scaled from passive suicide ideation, such as thoughts of ‘I wish I were dead’ without active intent, all the way up to active suicidal ideation with a plan and intent.”

Researchers were able to distinguish individuals with passive suicide ideation from those with more serious intentions, said Mr. Greenwood. They used medical records to evaluate the prevalence of suicidal ideation and behavior.

The investigators found that more than one in five (20.9%) teens endorsed any lifetime suicide ideation. This, said Mr. Greenwood, is “roughly equivalent” to the prevalence reported earlier in the adult cohort of the Human Epilepsy Project (21.6%).

‘Striking’ rate

The fact that one in five adolescents had any lifetime suicide ideation is “definitely a striking number,” said Mr. Greenwood.

Researchers found that 15% of patients experienced active suicide ideation, 7.5% exhibited preparatory or suicidal behaviors, and 3% had made a prior suicide attempt.

All of these percentages increased at 3 years: Thirty-one percent for suicide ideation; 25% for active suicide behavior, 15% for preparatory or suicide behaviors, and 5% for prior suicide attempt.

The fact that nearly one in three adolescents endorsed suicide ideation at 3 years is another “striking” finding, said Mr. Greenwood.

Of the 53 adolescents who had never had suicide ideation at the time of enrollment, 7 endorsed new-onset suicide ideation in the follow-up period. Five of 14 who had had suicide ideation at some point prior to enrollment continued to endorse it.

“The value of the study is identifying the prevalence and identifying the significant number of adolescents with epilepsy who are endorsing either suicide ideation or suicidal behaviors,” said Mr. Greenwood.

The researchers found that among younger teens (aged 11–14 years) rates of suicide ideation were higher than among their older counterparts (aged 15–17 years).

The study does not shed light on the biological connection between epilepsy and suicidality, but Mr. Greenwood noted that prior research has suggested a bidirectional relationship.

“Depression and other psychiatric comorbidities might exist prior to epileptic activity and actually predispose to epileptic activity.”

Mr. Greenwood noted that suicide ideation has “spiked” recently across the general population, and so it’s difficult to compare the prevalence in her study with “today’s prevalence.”

However, other research generally shows that the suicide ideation rate in the general adolescent population is much lower than in teens with epilepsy.

Unique aspects of the current study are that it reports suicide ideation and behaviors at around the time of an epilepsy diagnosis and documents how suicidality progresses or resolves over time, said Mr. Greenwood.


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