Nightmares associated with suicide risk in psychiatric patients, study finds

New research provides preliminary evidence that experiencing frequent nightmares is associated with an increased risk of suicide. The findings, published in the journal Psychiatry Research, indicate that nightmares could play an important role in the outcome of psychiatric disorders.

(If you’re thinking about suicide, are worried about a friend or loved one, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.)

“We were interested in exploring this topic because many individuals experience nightmares and we know that nightmares are often associated with suicidal behavior. Thus, the goal of the current study was to better understand potential mechanisms underlying the association between nightmares and suicide risk in a psychiatric population,” said Maurizio Pompili, an associate professor of psychiatry at Sapienza University of Rome and corresponding author of the study.

The researchers examined 172 adult inpatients at psychiatric units of the Sant’Andrea Medical Center between January 2014 and April 2016. Most of the participants had been diagnosed with psychotic, schizoaffective, depressive, or bipolar disorders.

Those who experienced monthly to weekly nightmares were at an increased risk of reporting higher levels of hopelessness, depressive symptoms, and suicide risk compared to those who reported yearly or no nightmares.

“People who have frequent nightmares may be at an increased risk for suicide, especially when he or she is also feeling depressed and/or hopeless,” Pompili said.

The researchers also found that patients who reported frequent nightmares tended to be younger and were more likely to have been hospitalized for a recent suicide attempt.

However, the study — like all research — has some limitations.

“The data for this study were collected at one point in time (i.e., cross-sectionally), so future research should collect longitudinal data over time so causal interpretations can be made,” Pompili told PsyPost.

“Also, the fact that the sample only included psychiatric patients in Italy may limit generalizability. Future studies should explore these variables in populations in other countries and compare the findings across cultures.”

“We believe that our study adds to the growing empirical research base establishing nightmares as a risk factor for suicidal ideation and behavior,” Pompili added. “Moreover, identifying the contributory roles of depressive symptoms and hopelessness in the nightmare-suicide risk link may offer potential targets for suicide prevention efforts in high risk psychiatric populations.”

The study, “Nightmares and Suicide Risk in Psychiatric Patients: The Roles of Hopelessness and Male Depressive Symptoms“, was authored by Dorian A. Lamis, Marco Innamorati, Denise Erbuto, Isabella Berardelli, Franco Montebovi, Gianluca SeraÞni, Mario Amore, Barry Krakow, Paolo Girardi, and Maurizio Pompili.