A new study suggests that trace amounts of lithium in drinking water are associated with lower rates of suicide in certain regions. In a systematic review and meta-analysis of all previous studies on the subject, new research published in the British Journal of Psychiatry from Brighton and Sussex Medical School (BSMS) and the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience at King's College London provides further evidence that naturally-occurring lithium may have an anti-suicidal effect.
Lithium is known to be effective as a medication for the treatment and prevention of manic and depressive episodes, stabilizing mood, and reducing the risk of suicide in people with mood disorders. As a naturally-occurring element found in vegetables, grains, spices, and rocks, it moves from soils and sediments into the ground and public water supply. Some public water supplies have higher concentrations of naturally-occurring lithium than others.
"It is promising that higher levels of trace lithium in drinking water may exert an anti-suicidal effect and have the potential to improve community mental health. The prevalence of mental health conditions and national suicide rates are increasing in many countries. Worldwide, over 800,000 people die by suicide every year, and suicide is the leading cause of death among persons aged 15-24 years," elaborated lead author Professor Anjum Memon, Chair in Epidemiology and Public Health Medicine at BSMS.
"In these unprecedented times of COVID-19 pandemic and the consequent increase in the incidence of mental health conditions, accessing ways to improve community mental health and reduce the incidence of anxiety, depression, and suicide is ever more important."
The researchers’ analysis compared studies from Austria, Greece, Italy, Lithuania, UK, Japan, and USA in 1,286 regions/counties/cities in these countries. "Next steps might include testing this hypothesis by randomized community trials of lithium supplementation of the water supply, particularly in communities (or settings) with demonstrated high prevalence of mental health conditions, violent criminal behavior, chronic substance abuse, and risk of suicide. This may provide further evidence to support the hypothesis that lithium could be used at the community level to reduce or combat the risk of these conditions,” hypothesized Professor Memon.
These findings could even begin to shift how we consider medical prescriptions for mental health. Professor Carmine Pariante from the Royal College of Psychiatrists mused: "This study shows that the boundaries between medication and nutritional interventions are not as rigid as we used to think, opening up the possibility of new treatments that span both domains. More knowledge of the beneficial properties of lithium and its role in regulating brain function can lead to a deeper understanding of mental illness and improve the wellbeing of patients with depression and other mental health problems."