A new US study that found adults with chronic sleep problems may be at higher risk of suicide, even if they have no history of mental health problems.
BBC News reported today, 1st April, that the study is to be presented at a World Psychiatric Association meeting. The Association is hosting an international congress titled “Treatments in Psychiatry” this week from 1-4 April in Florence, Italy.
The lead investigator was Dr Marcin Wojnar, a Research Fellow at the Center from Fogarty International Training Program in Substance Abuse Research at at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. He is a psychiatrist from Nowowiejski Psychiatric Hospital and the Medical University of Warsaw, in Poland.
Wojnar told the press that doctors should be aware that when patients report sleep problems they could be at “heightened risk of suicide even if they don’t have a psychiatric condition” and should be assessed for such.
“Our findings also raise the possibility that addressing sleep problems could reduce the risk of suicidal behaviours,” he added.
Research has already shown that adults with psychiatric problems and teenagers are more likely to think about and attempt suicide if they have disturbed sleep, but there is little data on how chronic sleep disturbance affects the general population.
For the study, researchers looked for any links between sleep problems and suicidal behaviour in over 5,500 Americans over the period of a year.
During the 12 months of the study, 2.6 per cent of the participants experienced suicidal thoughts and 0.5 per cent reported attempting suicide.
The more types of sleep disturbance reported, the more likely participants were to have suicidal thoughts or attempt suicide.
The researchers looked for three symptoms of disturbed sleep reported by participants: waking at least two hours before they wanted to, finding it difficult to get to sleep, and finding it difficult to stay asleep.
After ruling out potential confounders such as drugs, illness, anxiety, depression, marital and financial status, the researchers found that having at least two of the three symptoms was linked to a 2.6 times higher chance of attempting suicide compared to people who had none of the symptoms.
According to a press statement reported by Reuters, about one third of the participants reported having at least one type of sleep disturbance.
Waking at least two hours earlier was the symptom most strongly linked to attempting suicide.
A sleep expert from Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital, Dr Neil Stanley, told the BBC that the study underlines the importance of good sleep for physical, mental and emotional health.
He said that we already knew about the link between poor sleep and increased risk of depression, but this study:
“Suggests that the increased risk of suicidal behaviour is not necessarily linked to depression and thus can affect those that doctors might not feel are at risk.”
The researchers were not able to say how lack of sleep leads to suicide behaviours, but suggested that perhaps because lack of sleep affects cognitive function, this leads to poor judgement and increased hopelessness.
Another reason, said Wojnar, could be a brain malfunction involving serotonin, the chemical that helps regulate mood, sleep and other vital functions.
According to the World Health Organization, nearly 900,000 people worldwide kill themselves every year, with 40 attempts for every death.