Nightmares can be a warning sign of more serious mental problems

New research has found that frequent nightmares increase the risk for suicide.

The study, published in the peer-reviewed open access journal Scientific Reports, found that nightmares slightly increased the risk for suicide among both the general population and those who experienced front-line combat during the Second World War. Though war veterans experienced more nightmares in general, the link between nightmares and suicide risk was not stronger than among the general population.

The study examined 71,068 participants — 3,139 of which were veterans — from the Finnish National FINRISK Study, a set of surveys conducted every five years from 1972 to 2012.

PsyPost interviewed the study’s corresponding author, Nils Sandman of the University of Turku. Read his responses below:

PsyPost: Why were you interested in this topic?

Sandman: Science is the most reliable way of obtaining information known to man, but it is far from perfect. Single scientific studies are still not very reliable and their results must be replicated several times before we can state them as scientific facts. There is ongoing discussion about need to replicate more studies in psychological sciences and my prior work on epidemiology of nightmares identified widely cited study from 2001 that we could significantly improve upon. That study found frequent nightmares to increase risk for suicide, but it failed to notice that data used in the study contained war veterans that could have influenced the results. We made new version of the study were war veterans were identified among other improvements. The results of the original study were vindicated and now we have more reliable understanding that nightmares increase, albeit slightly, risk for suicide.

What should the average person take away from your study?

People who experience frequent nightmares may also be susceptible to mood disorders and they have slightly higher risk for committing suicide than people without nightmare problem. The risk is not very large, most nightmare sufferers do not become suicidal, but the take home message is that frequent distressing nightmares should be taken seriously and help for them should be sought. For some people, untreated problem with nightmares can lead to serious consequences.

Are there any major caveats? What questions still need to be addressed?

Our study did improve upon the original study but there were still limitations that we could not overcome because of the nature of the data available. We studied nightmare frequency of veterans of the Second World War, but we did not have information about the contents of those nightmares and therefore cannot know how many of them were war related nor did we have information about other Post-Traumatic symptoms among the veterans. Having that information would have helped us to get more precise picture about nightmares and suicide risk among this special population, but the data was collected decades ago and at that time, those kind of measures were not used.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

There is mounting evidence that nightmares are related to many problems of well-being. In the future they should receive more clinical attention as they might have value as an early warning sign of more serious problems.

The study, “Nightmares as predictors of suicide: an extension study including war veterans“, was also co-authored by Katja Valli, Erkki Kronholm, Erkki Vartiainen, Tiina Laatikainen and Tiina Paunio. It was published March 15, 2017.