A jaw-dropping new study in the British Journal of Psychiatry shows that regions with higher natural levels of lithium in drinking water have lower suicide rates.
Yep, lithium is in drinking water. Much of the world’s population is on lithium. Really.
You probably know lithium as the medication widely used to treat mood disorders, helping with mania and depression, and decreasing impulsivity, aggression, violence, and substance abuse. It is in most rocks—it’s on the periodic table!—and makes its way into drinking water in trace levels. (Fun fact: Lithium figures prominently in the big bang theory. It is truly elemental.)
The researchers performed a meta-analysis, looking at drinking water lithium levels and suicide rates in 1,286 regions in the U.S., U.K., Lithuania, Japan, Greece, Austria, and Italy, and found lower suicide rates in areas with higher lithium levels. The findings are a correlation—not causation—though they dovetail with prior studies showing that lithium medication reduces suicide and suicide attempts.
If experts have their way, more lithium could make its way to a water supply near you. Lead author Anjum Memon, chair of epidemiology and public health at the Brighton and Sussex Medical School, hopes to next run “randomized community trials of lithium supplementation of the water supply, particularly in communities 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.”
The need is urgent: One person kills themselves every 40 seconds globally, or over 800,000 annually, and nearly 50,000 in the U.S., where suicide currently on the rise. The World Health Organization says that for each suicide, there are 20 more attempts.