A new study of adults who underwent bariatric surgery finds that the surgery was associated with an increased risk for self-harm emergencies.
Bariatric surgery is a procedure that helps people to lose weight by reducing the size of the stomach. The technique is often performed on obese individuals and has been credited with significant long-term loss of weight, recovery from diabetes, and improvement in cardiovascular risk factors.
But mental health problems are prevalent in morbidly obese patients and those undergoing bariatric surgery.
Self-harm behaviors, including suicidal ideation and past suicide attempts, are frequent in bariatric surgery candidates. Research has been unclear, however, on whether these behaviors are mitigated or aggravated by surgery.
In the new study, published online by JAMA Surgery, Junaid A. Bhatti, M.B.B.S., M.Sc., Ph.D., of the Sunnybrook Research Institute, Toronto, and colleagues documented the occurrence of significant mental health issues after bariatric surgery on 8,815 individuals from Ontario, Canada.
Specifically, the researchers compared the risk of self-harm behaviors before and after surgery.
Follow-up for each patient was three years prior to surgery and three years after surgery. The researchers categorized four distinct mechanisms of self-harm behaviors: medications, alcohol, poisoning by toxic chemicals, and physical trauma.
A total of 111 patients had 158 self-harm emergencies during follow-up. The researchers found that although a few patients had self-harm emergencies prior to the intervention, the risk of these emergencies increased significantly (by approximately 50 percent) after surgery.
Nearly all events occurred in patients who had a history of a mental health disorder. Intentional self-poisoning by medications was the most common mechanism of attempted suicide.
The authors write that the published literature provides differing reasons for the association between bariatric surgery and the subsequent risk of self-harm. Possible explanations include:
- changes in alcohol metabolism after surgery;
- the chance that surgery might lead to a substitution of substance misuse for food;
- increased stress and anxiety in postoperative patients;
- and the effect of surgery on the levels of neurohormones — which normally reduce the likelihood of depression and suicidal behaviors.
“Findings from this study advocate a better understanding of these and other theories through future research of potential mechanisms of self-harm in patients undergoing bariatric surgery.”
Researchers believe the adverse effects undermine the overall benefits of bariatric surgery. Investigators say the study findings could be useful for bariatric surgeons and emergency physicians in postoperative follow-up.
“Additional clinical implications include active postoperative screening for self-harm risk among patients who have undergone bariatric surgery and are presenting for follow up. Patient and surgery factors could help identify vulnerable patients. Overall, these findings imply that more work is needed to understand why self-harm behaviors increase in the postoperative period and how these risks might be reduced.”
Commentary: Bariatric Surgery — More Than Just an Operation
“The study has two important findings. First, the preoperative incidence of self-harm emergencies in patients undergoing bariatric surgery is twice the population average and increases by an additional 50 percent in the postoperative period. The identification of patients with an increased risk of such adverse outcomes remains an elusive goal,” write Amir A. Ghaferi, M.D., M.S., and Carol Lindsay-Westphal, Ph.D., of the Ann Arbor Veterans Administration Healthcare System in Michigan.
“Second, most self-harm emergencies occur in the second and third postoperative years. There is currently no minimum standard for psychological follow-up. Although stringent criteria are in place for insurance and programmatic approval to undergo surgery, the postoperative follow-up rates in general have been poor.
“The study by Bhatti and colleagues underscores the unique vulnerability of patients undergoing bariatric surgery and forces us to look closely at why suicide rates are more than 4 times higher in these patients than the general population. Bariatric surgery is more than just an operation — it is time we recognize and treat it is as such.”
Editor’s Note: Dr. Ghaferi reported receiving salary support from Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan as the director of the Michigan Bariatric Surgery Collaborative. No other disclosures were reported.