Content warning: This article discusses suicide, self-harm, and trauma.

As ICU admissions around the world reach an all-time high, the researchers said they hope the findings of the study will “allow for earlier intervention[s to be made] to potentially reduce this important public health problem”.

Recuperating after a critical illness is associated with physical symptoms such as muscle weakness, fatigue, cognitive impairment, and pain, and the related financial hardship from those symptoms. And previous research on ICU admissions and mental health has found that many critically ill patients develop psychosomatic symptoms in response to their time in intensive care, with reminders of their illness producing intense feelings of depression, anxiety, or PTSD.

“Knowledge of these prognostic factors might allow for earlier intervention to potentially reduce this important public health problem,” said the research team.

However, exploring this relationship further, researchers in Canada and the USA analysed the association between 423,000 ICU survivors and instances of suicide and self-harm after hospital discharge.

They discovered that ICU survivors had a 22% higher risk of suicide and a 15% higher risk of self-harm when compared to non-ICU patients. And this increased risk was evident almost immediately after leaving hospitals and persisted for years afterwards.

The researchers said: “Survivors of critical illness have increased risk of suicide and self-harm, and these outcomes were associated with pre-existing psychiatric illness and receipt of invasive life support.”

The analysis also showed that those at most risk were younger patients, those with pre-existing mental health diagnoses, and those who required more intense invasive procedures, such as ventilation and blood filtration.

While the overall risk the researchers stressed is very low, the study suggests that providing extra support for ICU survivors may have to be considered in future health policy and care planning.


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