Springer Nature is making SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19 research free. View research | View latest news | Sign up for updates

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



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.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.


  1. 1.

    Alaraisanen A, Miettunen J, Lauronen E, Rasanen P, Isohanni M (2006) Good school performance is a risk factor of suicide in psychoses: a 35-year follow up of the Northern Finland 1966 birth cohort. Acta Psychiatr Scand 114:357–362

  2. 2.

    Allebeck P, Allgulander D, Fisher LD (1988) Predictors of completed suicide in a cohort of 50,465 young men: role of personality and deviant behaviour. BMJ 297:176–178

  3. 3.

    Andersson L, Allebeck P, Gustafsson J-E, Gunnell D (2008) Association of IQ scores and school achievement with suicide in a 40-year follow-up of a Swedish cohort doi: 10.1111/j.1600-0447.2008.01171.x

  4. 4.

    Crawford JR, Parker DM, Allan KM, Jack AM, Morrison FM (1991) The short NART: cross-validation, relationship to IQ and some practical considerations. Br J Clin Psychol 30(Pt 3):223–229

  5. 5.

    Crawford JR, Parker DM, Stewart LE, Besson JAO, De Lacey G (1989) Prediction of WAIS IQ with the national adult reading test: cross-validation and extension. Br J Clin Psychol 28:267–273

  6. 6.

    David AS, Malmberg A, Brandt L, Allebeck P, Lewis G (1997) IQ and risk for schizophrenia: a population-based cohort study. Psychol Med 27:1311–1323

  7. 7.

    Fanous AH, Prescott CA, Kendler KS (2004) The prediction of thoughts of death or self-harm in a population-based sample of female twins. Psychol Med 34:301–312

  8. 8.

    Fergusson DM, Horwood LJ, Ridder EM (2005) Show me the child at seven II: childhood intelligence and later outcomes in adolescence and young adulthood. J Child Psychol Psychiatry 46:850–858

  9. 9.

    Gunnell D, Harbord R, Singleton N, Jenkins R, Lewis G (2004) Factors influencing the development and amelioration of suicidal thoughts in the general population. Cohort study. Br J Psychiatry 185:385–393

  10. 10.

    Gunnell D, Harrison G, Rasmussen F, Fouskakis D, Tynelius P (2003) Associations between pre-morbid intellectual performance, early-life exposures and early-onset of schizophrenia. Br J Psychiatry 181:298–305

  11. 11.

    Gunnell D, Magnusson PK, Rasmussen F (2005) Low intelligence test scores in 18 year old men and risk of suicide: cohort study. BMJ 330:167–170

  12. 12.

    Hintikka J, Pesonen T, Saarinen P, Tanskanen A, Lehtonen J, Viinamaki H (2001) Suicidal ideation in the Finnish general population. A 12-month follow-up study. Soc Psychiatry Psychiatr Epidemiol 36:590–594

  13. 13.

    Kessler RC, Borges G, Walters EE (1999) Prevalence of and risk factors for lifetime suicide attempts in the national comorbidity survey. Arch Gen Psychiatry 56:617–626

  14. 14.

    Lewis G, Pelosi AJ (1990) Manual of the revised clinical interview schedule. CIS-R. Institute of Psychiatry, London

  15. 15.

    Lewis G, Pelosi AJ, Araya R, Dunn G (1992) Measuring psychiatric disorder in the community: a standardized assessment for use by lay interviewers. Psychol Med 22:465–486

  16. 16.

    Nelson HE, O’Connell A (1978) Dementia: the estimation of pre-morbid intelligence levels using the new adult reading test. Cortex 14:234–244

  17. 17.

    Nelson H, O’Connell A (1991) National adult reading test (NART) test manual. NFER-Nelson, Windsor

  18. 18.

    O’Toole BI, Cantor C (1995) Suicide risk factors among Australian Vietnam era draftees. Suicide Life Threat Behav 25:475–488

  19. 19.

    O’Toole BI, Stankov L (1992) Ultimate validity of psychological tests. Pers Individ Dif 13:699–716

  20. 20.

    Paykel ES, Myers JK, Lindenthal JJ, Tanner J (1974) Suicidal feelings in the general population: a prevalence study. Br J Psychiatry 124:460–469

  21. 21.

    Singleton N, Bumpstead R, O’Brien M, Lee A, Meltzer H (2001) Office of national statistics psychiatric morbidity among adults living in private households, 2000. HMSO, London

  22. 22.

    Singleton N, Lewis G (2003) Better or worse: a longitudinal study of the mental health of adults living in private households in Great Britain. The Stationary Office, London

  23. 23.

    Stata Corporation (2005) Intercooled stata 9.0 for windows. Stata Corporation, Texas

  24. 24.

    Van Os J, Jones P, Lewis G, Wadsworth M, Murray R (1997) Developmental precursors of affective illness in a general population birth cohort. Arch Gen Psychiatry 54:625–631

  25. 25.

    Voracek M (2004) National intelligence and suicide rate: an ecological study of 85 countries. Pers Individ Dif 37:543–553

Download references


We would like to thank Howard Meltzer for initial design work on the survey and other ONS staff who were involved in the fieldwork and data preparation. Contributors: The Office for National Statistics carried out the longitudinal study on which this paper is based. NS was Project Manager for the study with responsibility for the data collection, analysis and reporting of the study as a whole. DG conceived and wrote the first draft of the paper and will act as guarantor, RH conducted the analyses and all authors commented on, and contributed to, revisions of the paper. GL and RJ contributed to the design and analysis of the study and provided critical comments on the manuscript. All authors have approved the final version of the paper. Funding: The data collection was funded by the Department of Health and the Scottish Executive Health Department. The views expressed in this report are those of the authors and not the Department of Health. Ethical approval: Ethical approval for the survey work was obtained from the London MREC. Competing interests: None

Author information

Correspondence to David Gunnell.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Gunnell, D., Harbord, R., Singleton, N. et al. Is low IQ associated with an increased risk of developing suicidal thoughts?. Soc Psychiat Epidemiol 44, 34 (2009). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00127-008-0404-3

Download citation


  • IQ
  • NART
  • suicidal thoughts
  • cohort