Could Putting Lithium in Drinking Water Prevent Suicides?

As the pandemic appears to be increasing the number of suicides, scientists are seeking to identify new ways to prevent them.

Could adding lithium to drinking water be an effective strategy to prevent suicides? This is what researchers from Brighton and Sussex Medical School suggest in a study published in the British Journal of Psychiatry on July 27. Through their research, the scientists identified a link between lower suicide rates and geographical areas where drinking water contains high levels of lithium.

While the idea of deliberately enriching water with a potentially psychotropic chemical may seem far-fetched, lithium is already widely used in medicine. It is used in the treatment of manic and depressive episodes or bipolar disorder because it stabilises mood. It is even sometimes nicknamed the ‘magic ion.’ Vegetables, grains, spices, and drinking water naturally contain it.

Doses still to be established

This new study is a meta-analysis of all previous research on the subject. Data from 1,286 regions in seven different countries were analysed. The conclusion? ‘It is promising that higher levels of trace amounts of lithium in drinking water may have an anti-suicidal effect and have the potential to improve the mental health of the community,’ said lead author Prof. Anjum Memon in a statement.

The scientists also found that people have already been receiving a small but consistent dose of lithium since birth. However, the optimal blood level at which the metallic element exerts this possible preventive effect has yet to be confirmed. They also do not know exactly how the trace element affects mood. It is currently suspected of stimulating the growth of nerve cells.

A suicide every 40 seconds

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), someone takes their life every 40 seconds. And even more alarming figure: suicide is the second leading cause of death among 15-29 year-olds. The coronavirus pandemic seems to have exacerbated the suicide rate. In particular, experts at the Columbia University Medical Center in the States have found that Google searches for suicide prevention hotlines have increased in recent months. Anjum Memon explains:

It is increasingly important to access ways to improve the mental health of the community and reduce the incidence of anxiety, depression and suicide during the Covid-19 pandemic, and the consequent increase in the incidence of mental health problems.

Recently, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently approved the first nasal spray to improve depressive symptoms in people with suicidal thoughts in the United States. Called SPRAVATO, it contains the active ingredient of esketamine, a close cousin of ketamine: an anaesthetic used as a psychotropic drug.

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