Archive for November, 2023

Making Peace With Chronic Pain Can Reduce Suicide Risk, Study Shows

A depressed man sitting on a couch is being offered support by a friend.

Research shows that people diagnosed with chronic health conditions have significantly higher suicide risk than the general population. And one of the most common chronic conditions in the United States is chronic pain.

Over 50 million U.S. adults experience some degree of chronic pain (defined as pain that lasts at least 3 months), according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Of those, over 17 million experience “high-impact” chronic pain; that is, pain that results in substantial restriction to daily activities. Any degree of chronic pain is associated with elevated suicide risk, and the more severe the pain, the greater the risk.

Fortunately, research suggests that there is a pathway to mitigate that risk. According to University of Texas San Antonio (UTSA) professor Willie Hale, people with chronic pain can reduce their suicide risk by “making peace with their pain.”

Understanding the link between chronic pain and suicide risk

According to Hale’s research, there are two principal reasons why people with chronic pain are at elevated risk of suicide. One is intuitive: they may simply want their pain to stop.

The other explanation comes from the Interpersonal Theory of Suicide: people with chronic pain may feel like a burden to others. Chronic pain can cause people to need help with activities of daily living or opt out of social activities. They may feel bad for asking their caregivers and family members for help. They may be unable to work and feel like a burden on their families or on society financially. And research has shown that feeling like a burden increases the risk of suicide.

The longer chronic pain lasts, the more entrenched these patterns of thinking and feeling become. However, with appropriate care and clinical intervention, chronic pain patients can “short-circuit the relationship between pain and suicide cognitions,” according to Hale.

Coming to a place of pain acceptance mitigates suicide risk

Distinct from managing the pain itself, which may or may not be feasible, people with chronic pain can minimize their suicide risk by reaching a place of acceptance. Hale defines “chronic pain acceptance” as “the ability to engage in activities that are meaningful toward an individual’s life goals, even if that means experiencing pain, as well as the ability to refrain from attempts to reduce or avoid pain.”

As such, acceptance and commitment therapy may serve as an effective clinical intervention to help individuals push through their chronic pain and participate in meaningful activities. In addition to interrupting those feelings of being a burden, reaching a place of acceptance can help individuals maintain social connectedness, which is a key factor in reducing the risk of suicide.
“If you can move people from making no peace with their pain to just being a little bit okay with it, that cuts their suicide risk in half,” said Hale. “And if you can get them to a high level of pain acceptance, it eliminates that risk altogether.”

Medical professionals who treat people with chronic pain need to be aware of the risk

People with chronic pain are usually also under the care of a pain management doctor or other medical professional. Unfortunately, too many doctors who treat people with physical pain are not adequately trained in mental health and suicide prevention. They may overlook the warning signs and fail to refer patients for mental health treatment. The consequences can be deadly.

The research is clear that people with chronic pain are at elevated risk of dying by suicide. Medical professionals need to take that risk into account when they care for patients with chronic pain. When they fail to follow standards of care, they should be held accountable.

If you have lost a loved one to suicide completion, contact the Law Offices of Skip Simpson for a free, confidential legal consultation. There is no obligation to hire us, just answers about your family’s legal rights and options. We are based in Texas and represent families nationwide.