Cause of Death: Bipolar Disorder, Mental Illness

April 7, 2015 Natasha Tracy

Have you ever heard of mental illness being a cause of death? Cause of death: schizophrenia or cause of death: bipolar or cause of death: anorexia? No? Me neither. That’s in spite of the fact that for some mental illnesses, like depression and bipolar, suicide attempts are an actual symptom of the illness. In other words, if a person dies by suicide and they’re bipolar, really, the cause of death is bipolar. So why don’t we popularly recognize mental illness as a cause of death?

Bipolar as a Cause of Death

Why is bipolar disorder or mental illness never listed as a cause of death? Read why it's important to recognize the real cause of death in bipolar.

As I recently remarked on a piece on bipolar depression and exercise, people with bipolar disorder have a higher risk of obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and metabolic syndrome (and, yes, these are risks that go beyond medication side effects). But if a person with bipolar died of cardiovascular disease, the cause of death would never be bipolar even though it’s bipolar that may have been the causational factor (or not, it’s hard to say).
With suicide it’s even clearer. One symptom of bipolar disorder is suicidal ideation and/or suicide attempt(s) and we know that 25-50% of people with bipolar disorder will, in fact, attempt suicide (depending on the study). What’s more, current data suggests 11% will die of suicide. That’s more than 1-in-10. And yet, still, bipolar is never listed as a cause of death.

Suicide Listed as a Cause of Death

In fact, in many instances, even suicide is not listed as a cause of death. People actively try to avoid citing suicide as a cause of death. I think this isn’t fair, accurate or right. Yes, it hurts the family when the cause of death is suicide, no doubt, but the person is dead either way so how about we deal with reality instead of a slightly more comfortable lie?

Stigma around Mental Illness, Bipolar as a Cause of Death

Oh, yes, I get it. No one wants to admit that a loved one has died by suicide and no one wants to admit that his or her loved one had a serious mental illness. Hello mental illness stigma.

And people may think this is an acceptable cover-up, after all, why make death any more uncomfortable for people?

I’ll tell you why, because until we deal with the truth underlying bipolar disorder and other mental illnesses we can’t expect to beat them. I tell audiences all the time to learn the facts about bipolar disorder because you cannot defeat an enemy you do not understand and this falls squarely into that territory. We need to know that mental illness kills people. We need to be able to admit it. We need to be able to say it. Because until we do, mental illness will simply remain in the shadows with more and more stigma building every day.

There is nothing wrong and nothing shameful about admitting that a serious mental illness took the life of someone you love. You wouldn’t hesitate to say that cancer killed a loved one or that heart disease was a cause of death – why is mental illness any different? It isn’t. We can’t let it be. If we say we want mental illness to be treated like any other illness then this is an area we have to change. Bipolar has almost taken my life and I hope that if one day it finally kills me altogether, my family and friends have the courage to say that my cause of death was bipolar disorder. Maybe saying this truth will underscore the importance of dealing with and medically treating serious mental illnesses.

You can find Natasha Tracy on Facebook, @Natasha_Tracy on Twitter or at Bipolar Burble, her blog.

APA Reference
Tracy, N. (2015, April 7). Cause of Death: Bipolar Disorder, Mental Illness, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 21 from

Author: Natasha Tracy

Natasha Tracy is a renowned speaker, award-winning advocate, and author of Lost Marbles: Insights into My Life with Depression & Bipolar. She's also the host of the podcast Snap Out of It! The Mental Illness in the Workplace Podcast.

Natasha is also unveiling a new book, Bipolar Rules! Hacks to Live Successfully with Bipolar Disorder, mid-2024.

Find Natasha Tracy on her blog, Bipolar BurbleX, InstagramFacebook, and YouTube.

Gazella Carney
August, 5 2017 at 2:56 am

My cousin's son just died. When I asked, I was told he suffered from a long illness. Then I was told he had Bipolar. I knew I had to research this as my question was can someone really die from Bipolar? Your article is informative and has started me on a quest to be more informed and determined to educate others as well. Tha.k you and God bless.

Cyndee Davis
July, 9 2017 at 5:12 pm

My 33 year old son died from bipolar disorder on May 12, 2012. He'd suffered from this illness since he was a young child but didn't have a marked manic episode until the age of 14. No medication ever brought him stability or the power to function. No medication ever stopped the manic episodes. On that day, he'd been in a manic state for 2 1/2 weeks...running through the woods...night and day... not sleeping.... and finally hallucinating... and he finally fell over and died. At that point, I didn't realize that people with bipolar disorder can just die from this illness. But they can. At his memorial service there were psychiatrists who came and I asked if they'd heard of this before. "oh yes" they said. Please keep writing and helping the world to grasp what a "physical" illness a psychiatric disorder is. There is also research that shows that the sooner someone receives effective, stabilizing treatment once symptoms begin, the more likely they can be helped for the long term. The longer people go without effective treatment, the less likely they'll ever get better. Everyone who suffers and everyone who loves those who do need to know these things. At this point in July 2017, the most effective treatments for bipolar disorder are IV ketamine and transcranial magnetic stimulation. There are clinics across the US offering one or both, though they're not offered everywhere. They're both expensive for doctors to offer, so you have to go somewhere that actually offers them. TMS is effective in providing complete control or even remission in 75% of cases. IV ketamine is successful in 80%. I'm posting a website that gives extensive information on this. If you have bipolar disorder, please get help while you can.

December, 27 2016 at 1:57 pm

I am saddened at the loss of yet another public bipolar advocate
Patty Duke, Age 69
DOB Dec 14, 1946 to
DOD March 29, 2016, 1:20 AM
"Cause Of Death Sepsis"
Carrie Fischer, Age 60
DOB Oct 21, 1956
DOD Dec 27, 2016, 8:55 AM
"Cause Of Death Heart Attack"
Numerous articles all over the internet will attest to the fact that bipolar disorder greatly contributes to shortening the livespan of individuals with bipolar by as much as 8 to 10 years

October, 7 2016 at 1:34 am

hi can you pls help me what it is l suff from depression for years but now l just feel empty l dont want to do nothing at all l just want to be on my own there nothing there at all empty thank you

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Natasha Tracy
October, 12 2016 at 3:53 am

Hi Sue,
I'm sorry you're feeling that way but you need to see a medical professional for a diagnosis. Try a psychologist or a medical doctor.
- Natasha Tracy

nc wilcox
February, 7 2016 at 3:26 am

I have struggled with bipolar for almost 20 years. it has been the downfall of my relationships and employment. I have resisted medication and therapy as well and I believe that it has caused serious depression to arise. I have contemplated suicide as the only option for relief but have yet to move forward with that option since I would be leaving those that love me behind. Still I feel that me being alive causes just as much pain and heartache as being dead for my family. I hope that I can control this and have a life worthwhile. But as of now I still fell hopeless

November, 29 2015 at 12:59 am

Well these type of illness can be very dangerous to the people that have them which they must be treated immediately especially the ones on the road today that cause road rage which is anther very serious issue.

October, 28 2015 at 2:51 pm

I was diagnosis of bi polar over 10 yrs ago. I had a good friend tell me that i didnt need med,s.I was confused and had already stopped my med,s numerous times and they say it only gets worse everytime you do.
I am living proof,it is by the grace of God that i am still here today.I stopped my med,s and i went into a tail spin. I became highely paronoid, went without sleep for months. My friend said thats not humanely possiable. I said are you calling me a liar. I went without eating.
My body was shutting down my eyes became blurry,i couldnt hold a thaught for long,My thaughts were racing.I couldn,t be around anyone negative. My mom would tell me to go to the hospital and get back on my med,s and i would get made at her.I had an out of body experience.
It was scary and i dont wish it on anyone. I just wanted to say to others who have a mental illness never go off your med,s.Don,t let others who dont understand the illness to convince you otherwise.

August, 6 2015 at 3:11 pm

Aug 3 Chris Hyndman of the Steve & Chris Show and also Designer Guys
died from "sleep walking". Really?
Come on. He "fell" off his balcony in the middle of the night? More than likely he committed suicide but again I doubt you will ever get his loved ones to admit it...

August, 1 2015 at 8:46 pm

Today Aug 1, was Whitney Houston & Bobbie Brown's daughter's funeral. A couple of years earlier her father admitted in an online/tv interview that he has bipolar disorder. I've also read recently that it was strongly suspected his daughter Bobbie Kristina did as well. Although it is reasonable to assume she was still heart broken over her mother's death it is also possible that her grief was complicated by having bipolar disorder (among other things) but I'd be very surprised if bipolar disorder is ever be listed as a cause of death.

April, 20 2015 at 6:52 am

This hits home for me. And I agree 100%. my father shot himself when I was 6, committed suicide. On his death certificate, under cause of death, it reads unlawful suicide. I'm 33 now with 3 kids of my own, and that's what I get to show them I'd much rather it read bipolar or bipolar / suicide.

April, 11 2015 at 2:38 pm

As the poet Dylan Thomas says
Do not go gentle into that good night
Rage, rage against the dying of the light
And as per the motto on my family crest
Dum spiro spero (while I still breathe, I have hope)
Yes, while have breath I will continue to fight/rage against
the dying of the light/hope.
I will not let this illness break me and neither should you!

April, 11 2015 at 10:36 am

My mothers 'mental illness' began at age 15 when her father died of a heart attack. She was her father's favourite It later morphed into more severe forms of the illness in part due to stressful life experiences, such as abuse/conflict, having to move away from family and friends/becominging homeless for a time, etc that made things worse. My sister and I were 3 and 4 respectively when she died, I was adopted and my sister went into fostercare. Mom had just broken up with her umpteenth boyfriend (she choose much older fatherly types but never married) and had also had an argument with her mother over custody of my sister. She chose to kill herself the day before my sisters birthday, nice reminder huh? Maybe as a sick way of getting back at her boyfriend and her mother and wanting her daughter to never forget her? In my opinion my mother was a childish, irresponsible, free spirit who grew up in the 60's with all that entailed, you know drugs, sex and rock 'n roll. My grandmother (who was raised in an orphanage) may not have learned the best parenting skills (she too also ran around with much older fatherly types) but at least she was there, until her death from cancer, for my sister while our mother CHOSE not to be for the most part. Yes I'm definately biased, no doubt about it, bitter you bet. I was also raised primarily by my adoptive family in a very abusive atmosphere. I'm sure we all have a story to tell. If you were raised with lots of love and support consider yourself truly blessed!!!!!!!!
I believe very stressful life events/environmental factors can change someones brain chemistry and play a large part in contributing to mental illness, it's not only in the genes. It's well known that our mental health can affect our physical and spiritual health as well and vice versa. Whether it's the chicken or the egg is a matter of perspective
It does seem though that the list of mental illnesses are growing as evidence by the DSM which is constantly being revised.

marjorie murphy
April, 11 2015 at 6:17 am

I have witnessed 3 family members die in the past 5 years due to Narcissist Victim Syndrome. The narcissist had to find a new victim each time one died. Get in someones head and destroy is ALL they are capable of. Yet nobody thinks to stop them. Mental health needs a bright light shone on all aspects. Especially the covert and deadly. I was not bipolar but I was being subjected to ongoing ambient abuse. Yes the healing lies in changing ourselves but we cant do what we dont know. Thanks to the moon Sam Vaknin

April, 11 2015 at 1:44 am

Mental illness is complex and subjective. There is much overlap between the specific illnesses which probably accounts for a lot of mis diagnosis over the years. It often depends on what type of questions the pdoc asks in the limited timeframe allotted and what you tell him/her as to what your diagnosis will ultimately be.
Suicide can be a symptom of a lot of different forms of mental illness (it can also be a side effect of many types of medications) so technically speaking, what then would you list as the 'correct' cause of death
There are no medical tests to date that can be performed to definitively confirm what the 'correct' diagnosis is and in the case of multiple diagnosis how would you determine which diagnosis and or medication (since so many people are on a number of different medications as well) actually CAUSED (versus was a contributing factor to) the the actual death.
I believe that lot of the diseases listed above such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, metabolic syndrome, etc can be attributable to the bipolar medications alone and not the specific mental illness and yes the contributing factors to these diseases go beyond that of the medication itself
You could conceivably make the same argument for morbid obesity as you could for for bipolar. I am willing to bet that you will never see morbid obesity listed as a cause of death either although it can be considered a serious contributing factor as in the case of cardiovascular disease.
Although I have not been privy to the detailed longer version of the death certificates that are available where I live I am willing to bet that they list some of these contributing factors, such as mental illness, etc within them especially since they are often used in lawsuits
If a surviving family member chooses to indicate in an obituary that their loved one struggled with mental illness that's their prerogative I guess but I suspect it's often left out because of a guilt factor. Believing that somehow they were responsible, that there was something more they could have done... Which in many cases is a LIE. You are not responsible for the choices another person makes, such as whether or not they choose to comply with the treatment options available to them
I believe that mental illness is a horrible blight that can literally suck the life out of BOTH the unfortunate individual who has it and the loved ones/caregivers who also tend to them

April, 11 2015 at 12:10 am

I think the most important point here is that it is important to be aware and to raise awareness of the mortality risks of mental illness, and I think we all agree on that.
I suppose it seems like I'm splitting hairs, but I believe suicide is always a choice. The symptoms of mental illness make it a very attractive choice, and it can make it seem like the only choice. Choice making is impaired by the symptoms of mental illness too. So in some cases suicide may be almost inevitable. Almost.
But if I was to say that suicide is a symptom of mental illness in the same way as depressed mood is a symptom, we might overlook the specific supports needed to prevent someone DECIDING to die. Social support, for example, is crucial in making it difficult for someone to die by suicide. This and many other SPECIFIC interventions are needed to both treat the illness, but just generally get the person out of that trapped situation. If you just focus on treating the depression without looking at the circumstances around which the person would choose suicide, then you may fail to prevent it.

April, 10 2015 at 11:09 am

I have often seen in the obituaries" Our daughter (mother, aunt etc) lost her brave battle with bipolar disorder." If I ever died by my own hand I would be entirely comfortable with that.

April, 10 2015 at 9:51 am


April, 10 2015 at 5:10 am

I live with several issues, PTSD, bi-polar depression, severe anxiety and OCD. For the past two years, in trying to find the right "cocktail" of drugs to have me functional (hasn't worked yet), I can honestly say that I believe Suicide is definitely a symptom of mental illness. I have not tried suicide, but some of the cocktails of meds have had me understand the feeling behind why people do. I keep fighting on, but there are some days I wonder how much longer I can keep fighting on. Some days I just want it to stop, I either walk into my Doc's office or the ER if he is out of town and tell them the issue. I hate the fog in my head. I hate not being able to have strategic thoughts and work out simple daily things and do them. I used to think that suicide was a cowards way out. I do not believe it is, I believe it is a place people get and they just can't go on, and the place is so bad, that even getting help is just no longer an option, that is part of the mental illness. I have been there once, never again do I want to feel that. I am lucky. I have support all around me without judgement. Without that, I do not think I would be able to get out of those dark times. Why some of us can keep fighting on, while others can't, I do not know, I don't think anyone really does. We need more money spent on research for those of us who suffer with mental illness. I keep Karma in my forethoughts all the time - put good out and good will follow you. It has worked for me. It is funny what keeps one person going while it does not have any helping effects on the next. I wish all who suffer, hugs, and love. Remember the light at the end of the tunnel is not there.... it is the tunnel that is not there, and the light is all around you always.

April, 9 2015 at 4:54 pm

Laurie Hook,
I am not denying the hefty link nor am I discouraging any awareness campaigns about this link. In fact I am thoroughly behind what Natasha is saying. It is important to show the LINK between bipolar and suicide. However that fact remains that suicide is the cause of death and not bipolar. The difference between causation and a 'hefty' correlation.

April, 9 2015 at 3:09 pm

When a person kills themselves it pretty much goes without saying that they were mentally ill. Anyone who has ever been in the mental health system for a number of years likely has been given a number of different diagnoses over those years. Some of which upon further examination were never valid in the first place. It all depends on which pdoc you go to and what you tell him/her. So then which ones are applicable and which one (as is comorbid mental illness) was the specific cause.
In Canada there are two types of death certificates. The general short version and the longer detailed version. The longer version is harder to get and is usually only available when some chooses to sue over wrongful death
By nature all autopsies are concerned with the PHYSICAL cause of death only. A mental illness is just that mental. Until a brain scan can differentiate which type of mental illness was the specific cause I doubt that it will ever be specifically listed as a cause of death
Suicide is only listed on autopsy reports/death certificates to differentiate between accidental injury and intended injury. Insurance policies have suicide clauses. The reason it's often left off is out of consideration of those who are left behind to clean up the mess and pick up the pieces of their life. You know the ones who actually have the courage to go on living despite all odds
My mother died of a self inflicted gunshot wound to the head. I got a copy of her autopsy report and death certificate. In my opinion it was a cowardly selfish act of violence on her part and I say that as one who also suffers from mental illness

Laurie Hook
April, 9 2015 at 8:33 am

Sarah, there's a difference between the legal cause and the genuine cause of death. To say you can't attribute suicide to bipolar is to deny the hefty link. No one kills themselves out of fun; there's a serious problem behind such an act. Sure labeling the problem is scary, but skipping the whole truth does a disservice to those of us needing to make informed decisions. It's less stigmatizing to say Karen Carpenter died of multiple organ failure but the failures were directly due to her anorexia. Your car analogy would negate the current campaign to stop people from texting and driving ... the point is to identify and eliminate root causes, otherwise we're at the mercy of supposedly random car wrecks. Those do happen sometimes, but without acknowledging and working on the preventable suicides, distractions, road rage, etc., we're relegated to a scary and hopeless world.

April, 8 2015 at 8:14 pm

It's not technically correct to say that bipolar was the cause of death if someone died by suicide. Just as in the case of drink-driving that caused a car accident which caused death. The cause of death is technically a car accident. One could say that the death was related to drink-driving. One can certainly say that a suicide is related to mental illness .
Just because 11% of people with bipolar disorder die by suicide does not mean that the suicide was caused by the bipolar disorder. Bipolar disorder however is obviously a major correlated factor.
In my own case, I have contemplated suicide once and this was when I first realised I was seriously mentally ill. I just didn't want to live with the pain forever and I didn't want to inflict it on people around me. There were other factors too. I had no hope. This option was in the back of my mind for a couple of years, in fact, in and out of various mood states. It was not a case of being depressed.
It was more about trying to control the situation. Bipolar was the main contributing factor, but would not have been the actual cause if I had chosen to leave at that time.
So I still have to fight this damned illness everyday but I choose life.

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