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How Chronic Illness Can Influence Suicide Risk

contributed by Dr. Lily Chu

Contrary to popular belief, up to 50% of people who die by suicide may not be affected by a mental health condition. A substantial majority though had visited a healthcare provider in the previous year. These findings suggest that physical health, and not only mental health, may impact suicide risk.

One physical health condition that may increase suicide risk is myalgic encephalomyelitis/ chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS). In fact, suicide may be the number one cause of death for people afflicted by ME/CFS. Most of the public and many healthcare professionals have never heard of this disease. Others might have been exposed to wrong or obsolete information. Crisis center staff and volunteers may encounter callers affected by ME/CFS. We share basic facts about ME/CFS and concrete steps crisis centers can take to help callers. By the end of this post, you will know more about this disease than most physicians!

Have you ever heard of or read about ME/CFS? Share your thoughts, experiences, and questions by commenting below.

What is myalgic encephalomyelitis/ chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS)?

ME/CFS is a chronic, complex, medical condition which affects at least a million Americans. That makes it more common than better-known conditions like multiple sclerosis or Parkinson’s disease. In the past, ME/CFS was believed to affect primarily upper-middle class, Caucasian, middle-aged women. Later studies showed that people of both sexes and all ages, races, and socioeconomic background can be affected.

ME/CFS often strikes people in their teenage or early adult years following common infections like Epstein-Barr virus mononucleosis (popularly called “mono”). For reasons we don’t understand yet, about 10% of people who fall ill do not recover and develop ME/CFS in the subsequent days to months. Current evidence does not suggest ME/CFS is contagious. Rather a persistent dysregulation of the immune system may have resulted in uncontrolled/ re-awakened infections or an autoimmune process in the sick individual.

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