HealthLawProf Blog

Editor: Katharine Van Tassel
Concordia University School of Law

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Breast Implants and Suicide Risk

BBCNews reports on an article in the August Issue of Annals of Plastic Surgery concerning research linking breast enhancement surgery and suicide.   The Times article states, 

Women who receive implants for breast enhancement are three times more likely to commit suicide, according to a new report that offered a sobering view of an increasingly popular surgery.   Deaths related to mental disorders, including alcohol or drug dependence, also were three times higher among women who had the cosmetic procedure, researchers said. . . .

Though the study did not look at the reasons behind the suicides, senior author Joseph McLaughlin, a professor of medicine at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, said he believed that many had psychological problems before getting implants and that their conditions did not improve afterward. 

Previous studies have shown that as many as 15% of plastic surgery patients have body dysmorphic disorder, a condition marked by severe distress over minor physical flaws. People with the disorder have a higher rate of suicidal thoughts and rarely improve after surgery. . . .

Controversy has long dogged the surgery. Last year, the Food and Drug Administration lifted a 14-year ban on silicone-filled implants after finding little evidence they were unsafe. But the agency required manufacturers to run 10-year studies of 10,000 women each to look for long-term consequences, including possible suicides.

The latest study analyzed data from 3,527 Swedish women who got implants between 1965 and 1993. Breast cancer patients who received reconstructive implants were not included.  Scientists tracked the women for as long as 29 years after their implant surgeries and found the suicide risk increased over time. There was no higher risk in the first 10 years afterward, they said, but the risk was 4.5 times higher after 10 to 19 years and six times higher after 20 years.

David B. Sarwer, a University of Pennsylvania psychologist who wrote a commentary accompanying the report, said the results suggested that women experienced psychological improvement after surgery, but that it was not sustained.  Researchers said the results may have limited applicability to women today because breast augmentation is more acceptable than it was 40 years ago.

McLaughlin said the study underscored the need for the psychological screening of women seeking breast enhancement.  Allergan Inc. of Irvine, manufacturer of Inamed brand implants, "is a big advocate" of counseling beforehand, spokeswoman Caroline VanHove said. She said women should have realistic ideas of how the procedure would change their lives.

Thanks to Ann at Feministing for the link.  Here are some further thoughts from Ann on the article,

Realizing this, some plastic surgeons are calling for more pre-augmentation mental-health screenings. (My question: Would they really tell a woman with severe depression that she couldn't have D-cups? Maybe. Maybe not.) Other surgeons don't seem concerned, saying that, because the research was conducted between 1965 and 1993, the situation today is much brighter for the silicone-boobed:

Researchers said the results may have limited applicability to women today because breast augmentation is more acceptable than it was 40 years ago.

Do they actually mean to suggest that the women in the study were suicidal because, in previous decades, society was not accepting of their silicone-enhanced breasts? I'd argue that today there is even more social pressure to look perfect than there was 40 years ago. And as plastic surgery becomes more socially acceptable, women with mental-health issues (and problems like body-dysmorphic disorder) may be under even more pressure to get breast augmentations. Therefore this problem is not going away.

Thanks to Feministing for the link.

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