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Suicide by Asphyxiation Due to Helium Inhalation

Howard, Matthew O. PhD*; Hall, Martin T. PhD; Edwards, Jeffrey D. MSW*; Vaughn, Michael G. PhD; Perron, Brian E. PhD§; Winecker, Ruth E. PhD

The American Journal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology: March 2011 - Volume 32 - Issue 1 - p 61-70
doi: 10.1097/PAF.0b013e3181ed7a2d
Original Articles

Suicide by asphyxiation using helium is the most widely promoted method of "self-deliverance" by right-to-die advocates. However, little is known about persons committing such suicides or the circumstances and manner in which they are completed. Prior reports of suicides by asphyxiation involving helium were reviewed and deaths determined by the North Carolina Office of the Chief Medical Examiner to be helium-associated asphyxial suicides occurring between January 1, 2000 and December 31, 2008 were included in a new case series examined in this article. The 10 asphyxial suicides involving helium identified in North Carolina tended to occur almost exclusively in non-Hispanic, white men who were relatively young (M age = 41.1 ± 11.6). In 6 of 10 cases, decedents suffered from significant psychiatric dysfunction; in 3 of these 6 cases, psychiatric disorders were present comorbidly with substance abuse. In none these cases were decedents suffering from terminal illness. Most persons committing suicide with helium were free of terminal illness but suffered from psychiatric and/or substance use disorders.

From the *School of Social Work, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; †Department of Behavioral Medicine, School of Medicine, University of Kentucky; ‡School of Public Health, Saint Louis University; §Department of Psychiatry, School of Medicine, University of Michigan; and ¶North Carolina Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, NC. Supported by NIH grants DA15929, DA15556, DA021405 (M.O.H.) and DA007304 (M.T.H.).

Manuscript received January 19, 2010; accepted March 3, 2010.

Supported by NIH grants DA15929, DA15556, DA021405 (M.O.H.) and DA007304 (M.T.H.).

Correspondence: Matthew O. Howard, PhD, Frank Daniels Distinguished Professor, Tate-Turner-Kuralt Building, 325 Pittsboro, CB 3550, Chapel Hill, NC 27599-3550. E-mail:

© 2011 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.