Depression and suicide are major problems all around the world, with figures from the World Health Organization showing that suicide rates have increased by 60% worldwide over the last 45 years. Traditionally an issue that affected a disproportionate number of older men, a growing number of younger people are now turning to suicide.

Many have chronic mental health disorders, such as depression and alcohol misuse, and the problem has become particularly apparent in recent years as people have struggled to cope during the global economic downturn.



Scientists, doctors and policymakers have all been working hard to find effective interventions that reduce suicide rates – but what if something as simple as a regular cup of coffee could make a difference? Of course this sounds like a remarkably simplistic approach, but a newly published study suggests that coffee – and in particular caffeine – may indeed help to reduce the risk of suicide!

Coffee, Caffeine and a Lower Risk of Suicide

coffee research

Researchers at Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) set about investigating the possible association between caffeine and suicide risk by analyzing data from three large US studies. These contained information on:

  1. 43,599 men enrolled in the Health Professionals Follow-up Study (1988–2008)
  2. 73,820 women in the Nurses’ Health Study (1992–2008)
  3. 91,005 women in the Nurses’ Health Study II (1993–2007)

All of the participants told researchers about their usual intake of coffee, decaffeinated coffee and overall caffeine every four years, with overall caffeine consumption including sources such as tea, caffeinated soft drinks and chocolate. In the majority of cases, coffee was the main source of caffeine in the participants’ diets.

During the course of the three studies, there were 277 deaths from suicide. The researchers discovered that people who drank two to four cups of coffee each day were about 50% less likely to make a successful suicide attempt than those who rarely – if ever – had coffee, or who chose decaf. You can read more about the study in the World Journal of Biological Psychiatry (http://informahealthcare.com/doi/abs/10.3109/15622975.2013.795243).

Lead researcher Michel Lucas, who is based in HSPH’s Department of Nutrition, revealed: “Unlike previous investigations, we were able to assess association of consumption of caffeinated and non-caffeinated beverages, and we identify caffeine as the most likely candidate of any putative protective effect of coffee.”


How Might Caffeine Influence Suicidal Tendencies?

Girl drinking coffee

Caffeine’s best-publicized activity is its stimulatory effect on the central nervous system. But it may also act as a mild antidepressant by boosting levels of key neurotransmitters called serotonin, dopamine and noradrenalin in the brain. Its impact on these brain chemicals is thought to be behind its apparent ability to reduce depressive symptoms – something that has been shown in previous studies.

For instance, research led by the same Harvard scientist, Michel Lucas, and published in the Archives of Internal Medicine in September 2011 revealed that women who drank four or more cups of caffeinated coffee each day benefited from a 20% decrease in their risk of depression.

Don’t Drink Coffee to Excess!

Despite the apparent benefits of drinking coffee, the experts say you shouldn’t boost the amount you drink too far, as excessive caffeine consumption can cause unpleasant side-effects. Most people know the number of cups of coffee their body can handle and should not exceed that amount.

In fact, the researchers found “little further benefit” from drinking more than two to three cups per day – that’s about 400mg of caffeine. And a previous study conducted in Finland suggested people who drink eight or more cups per day may actually have a higher risk of suicide.

So it seems that two or three cups of coffee per day could be beneficial if you’re prone to depressive symptoms or have contemplated suicide. Much more than that and you could be doing yourself more harm than good.

Anna Seward

About Anna Seward

  • Senior Health Information Officer at Prostate Cancer UK
  • Experienced producer of consumer health information (written and audio-visual)
  • NCTJ-trained journalist with more than eight years' experience of writing and editing content on a range of subjects
  • More than seven years' experience writing about consumer health and medical research for charities, patient information websites and pharmaceutical companies
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