Sleeping Pills May Reduce Suicidal Thoughts in People With Severe Insomnia

Many of us are squeamish about popping pills to ameliorate mental health conditions, but sometimes they provide exactly what you need.

By Elizabeth Yuko, Ph.D.
March 9, 2020

When you can’t sleep — especially over long periods of time — it affects other aspects of your life, including your mental health. For people with severe depression, developing insomnia can lead to suicidal thoughts. To better understand the link between these two disorders and come up with a solution to the problem of suicidal ideation, researchers at the Medical College of Georgia at Augusta University conducted a study that found that sleeping pills may help curb suicidal thinking in depressives suffering from severe insomnia. 

“If you have a patient who complains that their sleep has taken a turn for the worse then there is reason to open the door to a question about suicide,” Vaughn McCall, M.D., chair of the Department of Psychiatry and Health Behavior at the Medical College of Georgia at Augusta University, said in a statement. “If your patient says their sleep problem is really bad and they have had thoughts of killing themselves, maybe they should have a targeted treatment for their insomnia.”

And given that there has been a 30 percent increase in the rate of death by suicide in the United States between 2000 and 2016, it’s important to explore any possible treatment options. At this point, more than 30 existing studies have linked insomnia to suicidal thoughts and actions, but suicide risk and prevention are typically overlooked in the research that explores how to treat insomnia. That’s why McCall and his co-authors decided to focus on this aspect of sleep and mental health.

Their study, which was published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, found that prescribing a sleeping pill in conjunction with an antidepressant may be helpful for patients dealing with severe insomnia and mental health issues. One group of participants, which followed that course of treatment, saw an improvement — both immediately and in the long-term — in the severity of their insomnia, as well as a reduction in their suicidal thinking. 

While the findings are promising, people with depression and/or insomnia should consult with their healthcare provider to draw up a multi-pronged treatment plan tailored to their unique needs— and not discount the power of non-medicinal interventions, including meditation, rigorous exercise and a healthy diet.

About the writer:

Dr. Elizabeth Yuko is a bioethicist and writer as well as an adjunct professor of ethics at Fordham University. She has written for print and online publications, including The New York TimesThe Washington PostThe AtlanticRolling StoneCNNFodor’sLifehackerReader’s Digest and Playboy.

Outlier Disclaimer

This site is for educational purposes and not a substitute for professional medical care by a doctor or otherwise qualified medical professional. The information provided by Outlier Magazine is on the understanding that it does not constitute medical or other professional advice or services.

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