Antisuicide Properties of Psychotropic Drugs: A Critical Review

Carrie L. Ernst, Joseph F. Goldberg

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

77 Scopus citations


The authors consider the extent to which psychotropic medications demonstrate benefits in the prevention of suicidal behavior in psychiatric patients. Results of a MedLine search are critically reviewed for lithium, divalproex and other anticonvulsants, conventional and atypical antipsychotics, and antidepressants. The existing literature is almost entirely limited to noncontrolled, often retrospective studies that do not control for potential biases in treatment selection, the use of multiple medications, the impact of medication nonadherence, and nonrandomized treatment discontinuations. Nevertheless, an extensive literature has arisen regarding observed reductions in suicidal behavior with lithium for mood disorders and, to a lesser extent, with clozapine for schizophrenia. A substantially smaller literature suggests more negative than positive data with divalproex or carbamazepine in bipolar disorder, while minimal information exists regarding suicidality with atypical antipsychotics other than clozapine. Studies of antidepressants have mostly been short-term and have focused more on whether they induce (rather than ameliorate) suicidal thoughts or behaviors. The sum of existing studies is generally inconclusive about whether antidepressants appreciably reduce risk for suicide completions. Relatively little is known about pharmacotherapy effects on suicidal ideation as distinct from behaviors. Possible mechanistic considerations for understanding antisuicide properties include a therapeutic impact on depression, impulsivity, or aggression, potentially mediated through serotonergic or other neuromodulatory systems. Recommendations are provided to guide future research as well as clinical practice.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)14-41
Number of pages28
JournalHarvard Review of Psychiatry
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2004
Externally publishedYes


  • Anticonvulsants
  • Antidepressants
  • Clozapine
  • Lithium
  • Suicidal ideation
  • Suicide


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