(NaturalNews) What is causing a dramatic spike in the number of suicides among psychiatric outpatients in one of Illinois' most prestigious psychiatric programs? That's what researchers would like to find out, though a number of observers think the phenomenon could be related to the medications themselves.
Officials with Northwestern Memorial Hospital, which is located in Chicago, said while they're "concerned about this disturbing trend," they offered no further details about the hospital's response nor any specific numbers of outpatients who have committed suicide, except to say they have "taken steps to identify patients at greater risk, in order to increase the already high level of support provided to all our patients."
The Chicago Tribune said sources it spoke with claim seven hospital outpatients since December have killed themselves; the paper said it was able to identify five of those seven through interviews and government records.
What's notable about the phenomenon is the fact that the number of suicides has spiked so quickly, and so recently. A retired Northwestern administrator, who spoke to the paper on condition of anonymity, remembered something like one to three suicides a year by outpatients over the past 10 years.
In a separate interview, one-time Northwestern psychiatric program chief, Dr. Ronald Krasner recalled only a "handful" of suicides during his 10 years with the program, the paper said.
No one wants to talk about the 800-pound gorilla in the room
The suicides are getting the attention of program managers, however.
"Several Northwestern medical professionals told reporters that the suicides have been a topic at staff meetings and that the hospital has undertaken intensive reviews of each case," said the Tribune.
Dr. Morris Goldman, an associate professor in psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the hospital admitted there "has been a major discussion at all levels here" regarding the skyrocketing suicide level.
"I don't know what the rate (of outpatient suicides) was prior, (but) it certainly is a spike. Some of what happened is attributable to things that can and will be improved," he told the paper.
Medical professionals from across the spectrum offered the paper loose, non-specific explanations for what is occurring - none of which blamed Big Pharma and the medicines these patients may have been taking.
Dr. J. Michael Bostwick of the Mayo Clinic said reliable data on the prevalence of suicide among psychiatric patients is at a premium and, at best, unreliable, because such patients hop in and out of treatment. He also offered that changes in the population the program serves could make the rate rise and fall, and that such changes have practically nothing to do with the program's quality of care.
Dr. John Csernansky, manager of Northwestern's mental health program, said the problem is related to an increase in the complexity and intensity of mental illnesses.
What about the medications?
"This is a clinical issue we're familiar with, we take very seriously. And whenever there is an adverse event of any kind - including suicide, and it's not the only adverse event - we do have particular procedures for reviewing the circumstances around those cases," he said, adding: "Suicide is not a rare event in the treatment of patients with psychiatric disorders."
No one in the profession seems willing to admit that perhaps the medications are having something to do with the increased levels of suicide. In fact, a 2011 industry study found that antidepressant medications can cause roughly 20 percent of patients to get worse depression symptoms than if they simply took nothing.
The findings, which were published in the Archives of General Psychiatry, meant that psychiatric professionals really needed to know quickly how their patients were responding to their medications.
"Identifying variables that are associated with response is a very important question that we haven't quite tackled," said Ralitza Gueorguieva, of the Yale University School of Health.