Treating Insomnia Could Prevent Suicide

Targeting the feeling of hopelessness about sleep, caused by insomnia, can be an effective method of suicide prevention, according to a study published in the ‘Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine’.

Scientists have long noticed that sleeplessness and suicide are linked. Now, a new Georgia Regents University study suggests why that might be — and how treating the former can potentially prevent the latter.

Insomnia affects about 15 percent of adults, but up to 80 percent of those with depression. Depression, in turn, can result in suicide. In May 2012, for example, Junior Seau famously committed suicide after struggling with both insomnia and depression.

A 2010 study by Dr. W. Vaugh McCall, Chair of the Medical College of Georgia Department of Psychiatry and Health Behavior at Georgia Regents University, found that those who suffered from insomnia or nightmares were more likely to have suicidal thoughts. But his clinical trial didn’t measure nightmares precisely and excluded patients who had no insomnia.

To address these limitations, McCall conducted a new study focused on determining how specific depressive symptoms, such as hopelessness and dysfunctional attitudes about sleep caused by insomnia can lead to suicide. It appears in the February issue of the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine and concludes that treating insomnia can prevent suicidal thoughts.

“Insomnia and nightmares, which are often confused and go hand-in-hand, are known risk factors for suicide but just how they contribute was unknown,” said Dr. McCall in a press release. “This study reaffirms that link and adds the element of hopelessness about sleep that is independent of other types of hopelessness, such as those regarding personal relationships and careers.”

The Georgia Regents study examined 50 adult patients who were being treated for depressive symptoms and symptoms of insomnia. More than half of the patients had previously attempted suicide.

Using mediation analysis, McCall’s team discovered that insomnia evoked a specific type of depressive symptom, the feeling of hopelessness regarding sleep, which in turn caused suicidal thoughts.

In light of the study’s findings, the researchers believe that they can treat insomnia and relieve patients of dysfunctional beliefs and attitudes about sleep that lead to feelings of hopelessness. Without these feelings of hopelessness, the scientists hope that suicidal thoughts and ultimately suicide can be reduced.

By Jeffrey Kopman