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More than a third of Americans are taking medications with depression side effects
Designer Kate Spade and celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain died by suicide in early June, at a time when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that U.S. suicides have increased 25% in two decades. Bebeto Matthews/AP

Suicide is on a sharp rise in the United States, and recent celebrity deaths certainly underscore that grim reality. Singer Chester Bennington, DJ Avicii and K-pop star Kim Jong-hyun from Shinee have all died by suicide in the past 12 months. Then there was the recent news of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, who died just three days apart.

Suicide in the United States has increased by about 25% in a matter of two decades, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and emergency room visits for nonfatal self-harm went up by about 42% between 2001 and 2016. It’s a complicated medical issue with no singular, universal cause — and that’s all the more reason scientists are still searching for potential factors for depression.

Now, a recent study suggests that over-the-counter and prescription medications could be a factor in America’s high rates of depression and suicide. Researchers from the University of Illinois and Columbia University analyzed medication data from more than 26,000 adults between 2005 and 2014, and found that an estimated 37% of all people living in the U.S. are taking drugs that have depression or suicidal thoughts as potential side effects.

The scientists know of more than 200 different over-the-counter and prescription medications that have depression or suicidal thoughts as potential side effects. These include blood pressure, heart, antacid, pain killer and hormonal birth control medications. Basically, the rates of depression were fairly low for those on just one of those medications — about 7% experienced depression — but the number more than doubled to about 15% for patients on three or more of these medications.

“Simply put, the more medications you’re taking together that are associated with depression, the more likely you are to report having depression,” said Dima Qato, lead author of the study and assistant professor of pharmacy systems, outcomes and policy at the University of Illinois. “The use of multiple medications has increased over the decades, and we really need to be aware of the negative effects of these medications being used together.”

Part of the problem is that “people aren’t aware that [these medications] could cause depression,” Qato added. Over-the-counter drugs often don’t list depression or suicidal thoughts as potential side effects, while prescription drugs usually have their side effects printed on throwaway pamphlets but not the actual pill bottles.

Because of that, much of the burden currently falls on patients — who are urged to remind doctors of all the medications they’re taking and to ask specifically about depression as a potential side effect to any new prescription.

“They should monitor themselves and see if they feel down, depressed or are having suicidal thoughts. And they should really discuss with their primary care provider or even a pharmacist and let them know these are their symptoms,” Qato said. “It’s important to be self-aware.”

Editor’s note: For information about suicide prevention or to speak with someone confidentially, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1 (800) 273-8255 or the Crisis Text Line at 741-741. Both provide free, anonymous support 24 hours a day, seven days a week.