Suicide rates are elevated among people diagnosed with severe health conditions, Office for National Statistics (ONS) data published today shows.

The analysis included patients diagnosed and treated for the following health conditions in England from 2017 to 2020: chronic ischemic heart conditions, low survival cancer, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). The data was based on mortality records linked to the 2011 Census and Hospital Episode Statistics (HES).

In patients with a COPD diagnosis, the rate of suicide one year after diagnosis was 23.6 deaths per 100,000 people, which is 2.4 times higher than the suicide rate for the matched controls with similar socio-demographic characteristics (9.7 deaths per 100,000 people).

One year after diagnosis for low survival cancers, the suicide rate for patients (22.2 deaths per 100,000 people) was also 2.4 times higher than the suicide rate for the matched controls (9.1 deaths per 100,000 people).

The rate of suicide after one year of diagnosis for chronic ischemic heart conditions was 16.4 deaths per 100,000 people, nearly two times higher than the suicide rate for the matched controls (8.5 deaths per 100,000 people).

The study was commissioned in April 2021 by former health secretary Matt Hancock, who had called for more data on suicides by terminally ill people to examine the possible impact of the ban on assisted dying.

This comes after research published in Dignity in Dying’s report in October, 'Last Resort: The hidden truth about how dying people take their own lives in the UK', estimated that up to 650 dying citizens take their own lives every year, with up to 10 times as many attempts. In addition, 50 Brits a year on average travelled to Switzerland for an assisted death before the pandemic.

Assisted dying is prohibited in England and Wales under the Suicide Act (1961), and in Northern Ireland under the Criminal Justice Act (1966), which states that anyone who 'encourages or assists a suicide' is liable to up to 14 years in prison. There is no specific crime of assisting a suicide in Scotland, but it is possible that helping a person to die could lead to prosecution for culpable homicide.

The British Medical Association (BMA) dropped its official opposition to a change in the law on assisted dying in favour of neutrality, following a debate at its Annual Representative Meeting in September 2021.

In March 2019, the Royal College of Physicians (RCP) dropped its longstanding opposition to assisted dying in favour of neutrality following a member survey. The Royal Society of Medicine, Royal College of Nursing (and Royal College of Nursing Scotland) and the Royal Pharmaceutical Society all also hold neutral positions on assisted dying.

The Royal College of General Practitioners remains opposed to change the law on assisted dying.

Baroness Meacher’s Private Member’s Assisted Dying Bill - which aims to legalise physician assisted suicide for patients with a terminal illness and six months or less to live - passed its second reading unopposed in the House of Lords in October. Further time for consideration at Committee Stage has not been allocated.

However, a vote on Lord Forsyth of Drumlean’s amendment to the Health and Social Care Bill, which would have required the Government to present a draft assisted dying bill to Parliament within a year, was narrowly lost in the House of Lords on 16 March.

In Scotland, a report is due in the coming months following a public consultation on an Assisted Dying Bill proposal.

If you are struggling to cope, please call Samaritans for free on 116 123 (UK and ROI) or contact other sources of support, such as those listed on the NHS help for suicidal thoughts webpages.