Making Sense of Suicide and Chronic Lyme Disease

When I explain to strangers that I'm a therapist who specializes in Chronic Lyme Disease, most people respond by saying something like "Oh I didn't know that a therapist can help Lyme. Isn't that from a tick bite? What can you do for that?" 

For anyone who has suffered years of failed treatments, inability to work, unlived dreams, broken families, lost cognitive function and at times a lost sense of self, it's pretty easy to understand the need for emotional support. 

For everyone else, I generally begin with a shocking statement such as "Many people with Lyme disease have been or are suicidal, some even homicidal or both." This usually grabs their attention long enough for me to provide some education about the fastest growing infectious disease in the country. It was this all too familiar interaction that persuaded me to write my first blog post explaining some reasons why chronic Lyme disease sufferers might opt for no life over the life they are currently experiencing. Before we dive into those reasons, let's take a look at suicide. 

Life is stressful.  Some of us are naturally more adept at coping with stress than others.  No matter how good we are at managing stress, all of us have a breaking point.  Whether that breaking point comes in the form of chronic long term stress, emotional pain, physical pain or a combination, the brain responds to help us find a way out.  When the mind has run out of options for preservation it turns to suicide as an answer.  Suicide is a symptom that things have become way too much. 

There are two types of suicidal thinking. The are called: Passive suicidal ideations (thoughts) and active suicidal ideations. Passive suicidal thoughts do not have a plan of action toward actually harming oneself or others.  They sound like "I wish something bad would happen to me" or "I'd be better off dead." On the other hand, active suicidal thoughts DO have at least the beginnings of a plan.  They sometimes sound like this: "I could take all the pills in the cabinet" or "I wonder where I could find a way to kill myself." People often believe that active suicidal ideations are "worse" or more dangerous than passive ones.  However, some research suggests that people with passive suicidal thoughts are just as likely to proceed with attempted suicide as those that have active suicidal thoughts. 

Individuals experiencing chronic Lyme disease can have either types of thoughts.  The nature of the illness encourages suicidal thinking for multiple reasons.  Let's take a look at some below:

Lyme Disease is a brain infection. When Lyme bacteria enter the brain and spinal cord, they cause Lyme encephalitis. The infection causes classic symptoms of encephalitis including mood swings, paranoia, rage, hallucinations, and irrational behaviors including suicidality and homicidality in individuals with no previous history of these symptoms. (Bransfield, 2017)

Lyme Disease causes severe and disabling pain. Ask your neighborhood Lyme disease sufferer what types of pain they have experienced throughout the course of their illness.  The list might look something like this: 

  • Shocking Nerve pain
  • Burning pain under the skin
  • Tremors
  • Muscle spasms
  • Excessive Itching
  • Feeling as if something is crawling under the skin
  • Bell's Palsy (facial paralysis)
  • Severe arthritis
  • Stabbing pain in the eyes
  • Inability to take a full breath
  • Rapid muscle wasting
  • Extreme sensitivity to light, sound and touch

Individuals living with chronic pain have a higher rate of depression and attempted suicide than the general population.  This coupled with possible psychiatric symptoms of a brain infection is often a stress too great to manage for some. 

Lyme Disease is Isolating. The nature of any severe and debilitating illness is the way it limits our daily lives.  Lyme is no exception.  In many cases, those impacted are no longer capable of maintaining their roles in the family or community.  Many become isolated to their homes and treatment facilities.  Life can become very small. Isolation is a major contributor to mental wellbeing and can often lead to feelings of worthlessness, helplessness and hopelessness.  

If you or someone you love has been impacted by Lyme Disease, it's reasonable to direct them toward resources to support their mental health and prevent suicide. It is important to remember, suicide is a symptom of feeling there is no other option. There is always another option.  If you need support, please contact National Suicide Prevention Lifeline

Provides help to those in suicidal crisis or emotional distress.

Call 1-800-273-8255

Available 24 hours everyday