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Lithium can help prevent suicides

Taking lithium can make people with mood disorders such as depression less likely to commit suicide, a review of studies shows.

BMJ Group News

What do we know already?

sad woman

Mood disorders such as depression and bipolar disorder are mental illnesses that affect the mood. In what’s sometimes called major or unipolar depression, people feel depressed, hopeless, or uninterested in doing things they usually enjoy, and this can last for weeks or months. If you have bipolar disorder, your mood can dramatically swing from very high (manic) to very low (depressed). Some studies have found that people with mood disorders are 10 times more likely to attempt suicide than people who don’t have these illnesses.

Lithium is a treatment that has been available for many years. It is a type of drug called a mood stabiliser. This means it makes people less likely to have mood swings. Lithium is thought to work well in stabilising people’s moods, but researchers wanted to find out if it actually helped reduce the number of people with mood disorders who self-harmed or committed suicide. To find out, they looked at 48 studies of nearly 7,000 people with mood disorders.

What does the new study say?

When the researchers pooled the results of the studies, they found that lithium was better than placebo treatments (dummy pills) at reducing the number of people who committed suicide. But it wasn’t clear from the results whether lithium was helpful for preventing people from trying to deliberately hurt themselves.

How reliable is the research?

Pooling the results of studies in this way can be reliable, but the researchers say this review was limited by the size and number of the studies that were included. Over half of the studies included in this review had fewer than 100 participants each. This can make the results less reliable, particularly as events like suicide and deliberate self-harm happen relatively rarely, even among people with mood disorders. They may happen even more rarely among people in trials like this, as people thought to be at high risk of suicide are not usually asked to take part in trials.

What does this mean for me?

The researchers say this study shows that lithium’s mood-stabilising properties can help prevent suicide in people with mood disorders. But lithium may not be the right drug for everyone with mood disorders. It can cause side effects, such as problems affecting the kidneys and thyroid gland, weight gain, shakes, dizziness, and feeling sick. If you are having treatment for a mood disorder it’s important to discuss these side effects, as well as the possible benefits, of treatment with lithium.

Published on June 28, 2013

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