Is low IQ associated with an increased risk of developing suicidal thoughts?

A cohort study based on an 18-month follow-up of the national psychiatric morbidity survey
  • David Gunnell
  • Roger Harbord
  • Nicola Singleton
  • Rachel Jenkins
  • Glyn Lewis

DOI: 10.1007/s00127-008-0404-3

Cite this article as:
Gunnell, D., Harbord, R., Singleton, N. et al. Soc Psychiat Epidemiol (2009) 44: 34. doi:10.1007/s00127-008-0404-3



Studies in young male conscripts suggest that low IQ scores are associated with an increased risk of suicide. Mechanisms underlying this association are unclear.


To investigate the association of IQ, as indexed by the national adult reading test (NART), with the incidence of, and recovery from, suicidal thoughts.


An 18-month follow-up of 2,278 of the adults who took part in the Britain’s second national psychiatric morbidity survey who completed the NART at baseline.


There was no evidence that poor performance on the NART was associated with an increased incidence of suicidal thoughts over the 18 month follow-up (adjusted odds ratio per 10 unit increase in NART-IQ 1.08 (95% CI 0.86–1.36). However, amongst the 155 subjects with suicidal thoughts at baseline, those with low NART-IQ were least likely to recover from them: the adjusted odds of recovery per 10 unit increase in NART-IQ was 1.42 (95% CI 0.96–2.10).


The association between low IQ and an increased risk of suicide may be because people with low IQ experience suicidal thoughts for more prolonged periods than those with high IQ or because low IQ increase the likelihood that people experiencing suicidal thoughts act upon them.


IQ NART suicidal thoughts cohort 

Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2008

Authors and Affiliations

  • David Gunnell
    • 1
  • Roger Harbord
    • 1
  • Nicola Singleton
    • 2
  • Rachel Jenkins
    • 3
  • Glyn Lewis
    • 4
  1. 1.Dept. of Social MedicineUniversity of BristolBristolUK
  2. 2.Social Survey DivisionOffice for National StatisticsLondonUK
  3. 3.WHO Collaborating Centre, Institute of PsychiatryLondonUK
  4. 4.Division of PsychiatryUniversity of BristolBristolUK