AUG 15, 2021 3:48 AM PDT

Lyme Disease Linked to Significantly Increased Suicide Risk

WRITTEN BY: Carmen Leitch

While about 30,000 cases of Lyme disease are reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention every year, the disease has been estimated to cause as many as 300,000 infections annually in the United States. The disease is caused by a bacterium, typically Lyme borreliosis, which is carried by deer ticks that transmit it to humans they bite.

Image credit: cropped from Erik_Karits/Pixabay

Lyme disease currently tends to infect people in the Northeast, North Central, and Mid-Atlantic states but the range has been expanding. The illness can often be cured with a few weeks of antibiotics, but some patients have lingering symptoms that can affect their concentration, memory, sleep, or nerve function for years. Some research has found a link between Lyme disease and mental illness or cognitive impairments.

There's now evidence that there are higher rates of mental disorders and attempted suicide in people after a Lyme infection compared to people that have not been diagnosed, suggested new research reported in the American Journal of Psychiatry. This work analyzed the public health records of Danish citizens over 22 years and included about 7 million people. Those who had a history of mental illness prior to their Lyme disease were not included in this study. About 13,000 people in the analysis were Lyme disease patients. However, only seven percent went on to seek treatment for mental issues.

The research indicated that people who were diagnosed with Lyme disease had a 42 percent higher risk of being diagnosed with affective disorders like depression or bipolar and a 75 percent high rate of suicide than individuals who had not been diagnosed with Lyme. Overall, Lyme disease patients were at higher risk of both mental illness and suicide attempts. While this analysis looked at associations, it also determined that more than one occurrence of Lyme infection was linked to an even higher risk of mental illness and suicide attempts, strengthening that link.

“It is time to move beyond thinking of Lyme disease as a simple illness that only causes a rash,” said the lead study author and psychiatrist Brian Fallon, M.D., M.P.H., Director of the Lyme and Tick-borne Diseases Research Center at Columbia. “In addition to the risk of severe cardiac, rheumatologic, and neurologic problems, Lyme disease can cause severe mental health problems as well.”

The researchers noted that their study utilized data from the Danish medical registry, which has hospital visit information but excludes community-based clinical data, so post-Lyme mental health issues probably happen even more frequently than what this study found.

“Treating clinicians and patients should be aware of an increased risk of mental health problems, particularly during the first year after a severe Lyme disease infection, and if mental health issues arise, patients should seek treatment and guidance,” said corresponding study author Michael E. Benros, M.D., Ph.D., the head of research on Biological and Precision Psychiatry at the Copenhagen Research Centre for Mental Health.

If you or someone you know is having difficulty with mental health, the National Institute of Mental Health has resources to help, or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

Sources: Columbia University Irving Medical Center, American Journal of Psychiatry

About the Author
  • Experienced research scientist and technical expert with authorships on over 30 peer-reviewed publications, traveler to over 70 countries, published photographer and internationally-exhibited painter, volunteer trained in disaster-response, CPR and DV counseling.
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