Serious health conditions more than double suicide rate – ONS

20 April, 2022

A diagnosis of a serious health condition is associated with an elevated rate of death due to suicide according to new data released by the Office of National Statistics (ONS) today. Almost 1,000 people with lung and heart conditions died by suicide in England between 2017 and 2020. In the wake of this study, Humanists UK has called for a compassionate assisted dying law that would introduce much-needed safeguards and support for people who are incurably suffering and terminally ill.

If you are struggling to cope, please call Samaritans for free on 116 123 (UK and ROI) or contact other sources of support, such as those listed on the NHS Help for suicidal thoughts webpages. Support is available round the clock, every single day of the year, providing a safe place for anyone struggling to cope, whoever they are, however they feel, and whatever life has done to them.

The Office of National Statistics’ study found elevated suicide rates for patients diagnosed with heart and lung conditions as well as severe cancers. One year after a diagnosis for low survival cancers, the suicide rate for patients was 2.4 times higher than an equivalent control population. The suicide rate for people with a diagnosis of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), a group of lung conditions that cause breathing difficulties, was also 2.4 times higher than an equivalent control population. Similarly, one year after diagnosis for chronic ischemic heart conditions, the suicide rate for patients was nearly double the rate for an equivalent control population.

Even more strikingly, the study found that patients with Huntingtons and Motor Neurone Disease were considerably more likely to die by suicide. One year after a diagnosis of these degenerative neurological conditions, the suicide rate for patients was 107.7 deaths per 100,000 people. The suicide rate for an equivalent control population was 0 per 100,000 people. The ONS hasn’t headlined these figures in the same way as it has for the three other issues, perhaps due to the relatively small sample size involved, but the difference is striking. In 2020, the Court of Appeal rejected Phil Newby’s right-to-die case. Phil, 49, a father of two from Rutland and member of Humanists UK, suffers from Motor Neurone Disease.

People who travelled abroad for the purpose of assisted dying would not appear as having died in the ONS data.

Humanists UK Assisted Dying Campaigner Nathan Stilwell said:

‘This recent study from the ONS is yet more evidence that our assisted dying laws in the UK are fundamentally broken. People with severe health conditions shouldn’t have to resort to a suicide – which is traumatic for loved ones and incredibly risky. There needs to be safeguards in place and proper care.

‘The assisted dying law we are calling for would introduce numerous safeguards that don’t currently exist. This includes approved locations, an official request for an assisted death that can be withdrawn at any time, and a mandatory “cooling-off period” to allow people to change their mind. If we had an assisted dying law today, people would be able to discuss their options openly with their loved ones and a healthcare professional. It is only through such a change in the law that people’s dignity, autonomy, and choice can be upheld.’


For further comment or information, media should contact Humanists UK Director of Public Affairs and Policy Richy Thompson at or phone 020 7324 3072 or 020 3675 0959.

Read the ONS study on suicides among people diagnosed with severe health conditions.

Read more about our campaign to legalise assisted dying in the UK.

Humanists UK is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people. Powered by 100,000 members and supporters, we advance free thinking and promote humanism to create a tolerant society where rational thinking and kindness prevail. We provide ceremonies, pastoral care, education, and support services benefitting over a million people every year and our campaigns advance humanist thinking on ethical issues, human rights, and equal treatment for all.