Can Lithium Prevent Suicide?

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A person commits suicide every 40 seconds. This is a staggering statistic, furthered even more by the fact that the WHO has reported how about 800, 000 people die by suicide yearly. In this time of coronavirus, suicide rates are expected to rise, due to less access to community mental health support. This means that now, more than ever, plans to prevent suicide are required.

But before we go onto a new plan of action against suicide, an understanding of why people commit suicide is required. The most common reason for suicide is an underlying mental health disorder. Examples of mental illnesses that increase the risk of suicide include bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, eating disorders, schizophrenia and the biggest risk factor, severe depression. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention has stated that depression is present in around 50% of all suicide victims. Depression can result in people having huge emotional pain without any hope. This results in depressed people sometimes only seeing suicide as a route out of their pain. Going back to the overall topic of mental illness being a large risk factor for suicide, most suicide victims decide to attempt suicide in an impromptu fashion, often due to their mental illnesses. This is why often family and friends of the suicide victim may have seen the person full of life a short while before they committed suicide since for a person with a serious mental illness, emotions can change from happy to extremely down very quickly.

People who have had mental trauma through experiences like war, rape, abuse and more, are at a greater risk to suicide as well. Among 6000 US adults, 23% of those who had been raped or experienced physical assault at some point, attempted suicide.1

Now that we know the main reasons why people commit suicide, what else can be done to prevent these people from attempting this act? This is where the use of lithium comes in. Lithium is already a well-known element, famous in the medical industry for its ability to stabilise the moods of people with bipolar disorder, therefore reducing their risk of suicide. However, in the field of medicine, lithium is prescribed in quite large amounts to some mentally ill patients, resulting in very dangerous side effects and harm to overall health. For example, lithium toxicity occurs when a patient ingests too much of mood-stabilising medications containing lithium. Lithium toxicity also occurs when the human body does not excrete lithium correctly. If a person has even mild lithium toxicity, he/she can have diarrhoea, vomiting, muscle weakness, tremors, drowsiness, lack of coordination, spasms and more. Someone with severe lithium toxicity can have these symptoms mentioned as well as agitation, confusion, muscle pain, ringing in ears, uncontrollable eye movements as well as others. Even mild lithium toxicity is extremely dangerous and may require the patient to undergo painful procedures like stomach pumping. Therefore, traditionally using lithium to stop suicide attempts is very flawed and needs a rethink.

A new way to use lithium to prevent suicide is to use it in drinking water. Some rocks naturally contain small amounts of lithium in them, meaning that water can contain this lithium when drunk by a person. The British Journal of Psychiatry has published research showing data from 1,286 regions in the USA, Austria, Greece, Italy, Lithuania, the UK and Japan. This data has proven a clear correlation with having more lithium in drinking water and lower rates of suicide in those regions. The great part about this solution is that the amount of lithium that is deposited in drinking water from certain rocks is hundreds of times smaller than the lithium-based medicines given by doctors. This means that there are no reported side effects or bodily harms that come by drinking this lithium-containing water. Furthermore, as the lithium is provided to people over a larger period, the effect on a person’s mental health is long-lasting.2

To finish, lithium has been used dangerously to stop suicide in the past, but in this case, less can be argued to be more. The research clearly shows that lithium, at harmless concentrations in water, can decrease suicide rates without risking damage to the body. The way to now make this knowledge useful is for every country in the world to now try to make sure that their drinking water contains lithium, improving the mental health of the country, preventing suicide, as well as increasing productivity at work and stopping the workforce population from decreasing, meaning that having lithium in drinking water is a win-win, for the government, for businesses and the common people.


References

  1. Sarai, S., 2018. Lithium Suicide Prevention: A Brief Review And Reminder. [online] PubMed Central (PMC). Available at: <https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6380616/> [Accessed 1 August 2020].
  2. Harvard Health. 2008. Using Lithium To Reduce Suicide Risk In Bipolar Disorder – Harvard Health. [online] Available at: <https://www.health.harvard.edu/newsletter_article/Using_lithium_to_reduce_suicide_risk_in_bipolar_disorder> [Accessed 1 August 2020].

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