One of the reasons some people still dismiss migraine as “just a headache” is that they don’t realize that migraine can kill. In fact, someone once said to me, “Migraines must be terrible, but at least they can’t kill you.”
The unfortunate reality is that migraine can and does kill. In rare, but real cases, a migraine attack can cause a stroke, which can be fatal. The other way migraine kills is by killing hope and the will to live, resulting in suicide. No, the official records won’t list migraine as the cause of death, but that doesn’t change the fact the migraine kills.
More than 34,000 people take their own lives each year. Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death among American adults and the third leading cause of death among American adolescents.
We Should All Know the Warning Signs:
- Suicidal ideation - threats or comments about killing themselves. This can begin with thoughts that seem harmless, thoughts such as “I wish I wasn’t here,” but can progress to be more overt and dangerous.
- Increased alcohol and drug use.
- Aggressive behavior.
- Withdrawing from family, friends, and others.
- Dramatic mood swings.
- Talking, writing or thinking about death.
- Impulsive or reckless behavior.
Risk Factors for Suicide
According to research statistics, approximately 90 percent of individuals who take their own lives experience mental health issues. Other factors may put a person at risk of suicide, including:
- A family history of suicide.
- Substance abuse. Drugs and alcohol can result in mental highs and lows that exacerbate suicidal thoughts.
- Intoxication. More than one in three people who die from suicide are found to be currently under the influence.
- Access to firearms.
- A serious or chronic medical illness.
- Gender. Although more women than men attempt suicide, men are four times more likely to die by suicide.
- A history of trauma or abuse.
- Prolonged stress.
- Age. People under age 24 or above age 65 are at a higher risk for suicide.
- A recent tragedy or loss.
- Agitation and sleep deprivation.
When Immediate Care Is Needed:
Anyone in imminent danger should get medical care immediately. Indications of imminent danger include:
- Someone putting their affairs in order and giving away their possessions;
- Someone saying goodbye to friends and family;
- Someone whose mood shifts from despair to calm;
- Signs of planning suicide - gathering what they need to commit suicide, such as a firearm or prescription medications.
If you observe these behaviors, but are unsure, a licensed mental health professional can help assess risk.
Back to Migraine and What We Can Do:
According to the Alliance for Headache Disorders Advocacy (AHDA), “Based on a sample of Americans, suicide attempts are three times more likely in individuals with migraine with aura compared to those with no migraine, whether or not major depression is also present.”
We’ve seen far too many attempted and completed suicides in the migraine community. One would be too many, and we’ve seen several. Tragically, we’ve seen them as young as 14-years-old.
When we fear that someone is at risk of suicide, we need to review the warning signs of and risk factors for suicide in the context of that person’s behavior. What we do at that point depends on several factors including:
- Whether we’re seeing this behavior in a group where we can reach out to a group leader.
- Whether we know close family members or friends of the person who are closer to them than we are and might be able to help.
- What information we know about the person’s location.
If we fear someone is in danger of harming him/herself or taking his/her life, we should take whatever action we’re able to take, up to and including contacting the police department where they live. It’s better to err on the side of caution than it is to risk losing someone. If you’re going to contact the police, you’ll need information to give them:
- The person’s name.
- Their address.
- Their phone number, if you have it.
- What they’ve said, done, or written to bring you to the point of contacting the police.
Circumstances have led me to contact police several times over the years. In two cases, the police arrived in time to save the person who had attempted suicide. In some cases, the people admitted to the police that they were planning to attempt suicide, and they were able to get the help they needed. Sadly, in one case, the police arrived at the person’s home too late to stop or save them. That was especially heartbreaking.
Possibly most importantly, we need to help and support each other as much as we can, and at every opportunity, so our fellow migraineurs don’t reach the point of suicide.
Emergency Phone Numbers:
For anyone in crisis or experiencing difficult or suicidal thoughts: The National Suicide Hotline 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
If you or someone you know is an an emergency situation, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at the number above, or call 911 immediately.
For more information, referrals or support: The NAMI Helpline at 1-800-NAMI (6264).
National Alliance on Mental Illness. “Risk of Suicide.” www.NAMI.org.
Alliance for Headache Disorders Advocacy. “Headache Disorders in the United States.”
Teri Robert is a leading patient educator and advocate and the author of Living Well with Migraine Disease and Headaches. A co-founder of the Alliance for Headache Disorders Advocacy and the American Headache and Migraine Association, she received the National Headache Foundation’s Patient Partners Award and a Distinguished Service Award from the American Headache Society. Teri can be found on her website, and blog, Facebook, Twitter, StumbleUpon, Pinterest, LinkedIn, and Google+.