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Cambridge University Science Magazine

Introduced in the 1950s, tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs) have been widely associated with fatal drug poisoning due to their high toxicity in overdose. Their replacement, selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors (SSRIs), came onto the market around 1990 and have since been responsible for a tenfold increase in total antidepressant sales.

It is commonly suggested that the world-wide drop in suicide rates over the past few decades could be explained by this change, but scientists who consulted records from Norway, Sweden, Finland and Denmark found no evidence of a statistical relationship with either trend. The results are in contrast to earlier studies, focusing on other countries and specific gender- and age-groups, whose findings support an association between increased antidepressant use and lower suicide rates.

Other suicide prevention measures, many of which were also introduced in the early 1990s, are likely to account for some of the decrease - though why rates have dropped in countries both with and without prevention strategies remains a puzzle.

"We need to keep in mind that there are factors in suicide phenomena that we still do not know," concludes the study, published in the BioMed Central journal BMC Psychiatry [1]. For example, cultural influences, including the effects of peer pressure, are very difficult to quantify but could have a significant influence on suicide rates.

Written by Jo Smith