Over the past three years, I have been writing the Wake Up! You’re Snoring blog with two main objectives: first, to educate you, the public, about sleep disorders, and second, to provide compelling reasons—preferably scientific evidence—why a person who may have a sleep disorder should get diagnosed and, if necessary, properly treated.
There is no shortage of scientific studies being released on a regular basis showing links between obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), insomnia, and other sleep disorders, and myriad negative health conditions, from daytime sleepiness to increased depression.
I wasn’t surprised to see a new study showing a link between insomnia, the loss of hope, and an increased risk of suicide. In a study led by Dr. W. Vaughn McCall, chair of the Medical College of Georgia at Georgia Regents University, researchers studied the mental state of 50 depressed patients between the ages of 20 and 80. More than half of the patients had attempted suicide, and most were taking an antidepressant.
It is established that insomnia and nightmares often go hand-in-hand, and are both known risk factors for suicide. The new study reaffirms that link, but researchers also wanted to find out what effect feelings of hopelessness about sleep had on suicide risk.
In the study, the researchers specifically focused on the relationship between insomnia and suicide risk by asking questions about dysfunctional beliefs about sleep, such as, “Do you think you will ever sleep again?” The scientists used psychometric testing to objectively measure the mental states and personalities of the 50 depressed patients.
Dr. McCall published the results of the study in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, the journal of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. In the report, Dr. McCall stated, “It turns out insomnia can lead to a very specific type of hopelessness, and hopelessness by itself is a powerful predictor of suicide.” Dr. McCall also said, “The likelihood of being suicidal at least doubles when insomnia is a symptom.”
McCall and his colleagues have, in effect, discovered a new predictor for suicidal thinking. But why the link between lack of sleep and suicidal thoughts? Dr. McCall explained that, “It turns out insomnia can lead to a very specific type of hopelessness, and hopelessness by itself is a powerful predictor of suicide.” He continued, “If you talk with depressed people, they really feel like they have failed at so many things. It goes something like, ‘My marriage is a mess, I hate my job, I can’t communicate with my kids, I can’t even sleep.’ There is a sense of failure and hopelessness that now runs from top to bottom, and (insomnia) is one more thing. It was this dysfunctional thinking — all these negative thoughts about sleep — that was the mediating factor that explained why insomnia was linked to suicide,” said McCall.
The significance of this study, like many others, is that it not only educates people about the risks associated with insomnia and other sleep disorders, but it challenges the medical community to look at things a little differently when diagnosing and treating.
In this case, examine lack of sleep and insomnia when treating depression and suicidal thinking. The finding also is a reminder to physicians that depressed patients who report increased sleep problems should be asked if they are having suicidal thoughts, McCall said.
If you’re having trouble sleeping, here are some tips to increase your chances of getting a good night’s sleep.
Remember, people need an average of 7-8 hours of restful sleep to fully take advantage of its restorative power and avoid daytime symptoms of fatigue. If a regular, peaceful routine incorporating the tips above doesn’t help you start sleeping peacefully throughout the night, contact your doctor. You may have a more serious cause of sleeplessness such as snoring, sleep apnea or chronic insomnia. Getting treated could prevent heart disease, hypertension and stroke.