The new suicide predictor

Hopelessness about getting sleep is a strong indicator of suicidal tendencies, says new study

Owl at night

When we ask someone to not worry too much, we say “don’t lose sleep over it”. Well, sleep and negative thoughts—even suicide—may be related.

A new study, by Vaughn McCall, Chair of the Medical College of Georgia Department of Psychiatry and Health Behavior at Georgia Regents University, reaffirms the previous research about the link between insomnia and suicidal tendency. McCall adds that hopelessness about sleep is independent of other types of hopelessness, such as those regarding personal relationships and careers.

"It turns out insomnia can lead to a very specific type of hopelessness and hopelessness by itself is a powerful predictor of suicide," he said. "It's fascinating because what it tells you is we have discovered a new predictor for suicidal thinking."

The research team used psychometric testing to objectively assess the mental state of 50 depressed patients aged 20-80 years. Over 50 per cent of them had attempted suicide and most were on anti-depressant medication. The researchers were able to filter out other suicide risks such as depression itself and focus only on the correlation between insomnia and suicide risk. They also asked specific questions about dysfunctional beliefs about sleep such as: Do you think you will ever sleep again?

"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, who specialises in depression and sleep disorders. He's seen the plight of insomnia patients escalate with progressively negative and unrealistic thoughts about sleep. “My immune system is permanently damaged” was one such atrociously far-fetched idea that these individuals had. McCall helps patients by challenging such negative thoughts. He also recommends that other doctors consider doing the same: to disagree, strongly stating there is no scientific evidence for the thoughts and that there is hope and professional help around to better the situation.

The likelihood of being suicidal at least doubles with insomnia as a symptom. "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 this is one more thing," McCall cited.

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