A psychiatrist in Ireland has suggested putting lithium salts in the public water supply, saying this could cut the rates of suicide and depression among the general population.
His call is supported by at least three other studies, undertaken independently and by different scientific organizations in separate countries in 1990, 2009 and this year (2011).
At a mental health forum on “Depression in Rural Ireland” in Co Clare, Ireland on Dec. 2, Dr. Moosajee Bhamjee called on his government to add lithium to the water supply.
“There is growing scientific evidence that adding trace amounts of the drug lithium to a water supply can lower rates of suicide and depression,” said Dr. Bhamjee, the former Labour party TD, or member of Irish Parliament’s lower house.
High doses of lithium have been used in psychiatry since the 1950s to treat people with bipolar disorder, also known as manic depression.
A mood stabilizer, lithium works by interacting with the brain’s neurotransmitters to decrease norepinephrine, the stress hormone, and increase serotonin, the brain chemical that creates feelings of wellbeing and plays a key role in mood, sleep, appetite, memory and learning.
Trace amounts of this soft, silver-white alkali metal is found in dairy products, sugarcane, seaweed, potatoes, lemons and eggs—and in some places, in the normal water supply of some communities.
Promise for debilitating disease
At least three studies have suggested that in the places where people get trace amounts of lithium from their tap water, the suicide rate is lower than in places where water sources have no lithium.
The first study, done in Texas in 1990, was followed up in 2009 by a team of Japanese scientists. The newest study, conducted in Vienna, Austria, supported the findings of both previous studies.
If the findings of these studies are confirmed by further research, putting lithium in public water supplies—or lithiation—may cut the rates of depression and suicide, both of which take a huge toll on all societies.
According to the World Health Organization, depression is the world’s leading cause of disability and affects about 121 million people worldwide. Every year, 850,000 people commit suicide, WHO says.
Throughout the world, rates of depression are spiraling and by 2020, it will be the second top contributor to the global burden of disease.
The world stands to lose a staggering US$16.3 trillion over the next two decades because of the economic impacts of depression and other mental illnesses, warns the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) and the World Economic Forum in a joint report released in September (2011).
Less than a fourth of all people suffering with depression have access to effective treatments, WHO added.
But Lithium has well-documented harmful effects.
In mental patients taking therapeutic doses, lithium has been found to induce considerable weight gain, and to reduce the activity of thyroid hormone. Lithium also damages the kidneys. It increases appetite and thirst, and patients are often in danger of becoming dehydrated.
About 75% of people who take lithium for bipolar disorder experience some of these side effects: hand tremor, increased urination, diarrhea, vomiting, weight gain, impaired memory, poor concentration, drowsiness, muscle weakness, hair loss, and acne.
In some patients, it can even worsen depression and cause suicidal thoughts.
Ireland: top four in Europe suicides
Saying that late intervention causes lifetime difficulties, Dr. Bhamjee urged the British public health authorities to consider piloting the lithiation of water supplies in a town in Ireland and the studying the results.
“The attitude in mental health service toward those with mental health problems should be recovery and not containment,” he advised.