A recent study found that frequent nightmares could predict symptoms of suicide in patients seeking emergency psychiatric evaluation. The findings were presented at SLEEP, 2009, the 23rd Annual Meeting of the Associated Professional Sleep Societies.

Sleep disorders such as nightmares are quite common in people who have depression, which is one of the leading risk factors for suicide. And, previous studies have also found an association between nightmares and suicide.

"Sleep disturbances, especially nightmares, appear to be an acute warning sign and risk factor for suicide," says Rebecca Bernert, principal investigator and doctoral candidate in clinical psychology at Florida State University. "Given that poor sleep is amenable to treatment, and less stigmatized than depression and suicide, our findings could impact standardized suicide risk assessment and prevention efforts."

The study involved 82 women and men between ages 18 and 66 who were in a community mental health hospital admissions area waiting for emergency psychiatric evaluation. Through questionnaires the researchers assessed their nightmares, insomnia, depression and suicidal tendencies.

The results indicated that having severe nightmares are independently linked to increasing symptoms of suicide after considering the influence of depression. Bernert adds that the findings stresses the importance of thoroughly assessing sleep among acutely-ill patients because it presents an opportunity for intervention.

What to Do If You're Prone to Nightmares

It's important to note that while nightmares are risk factors for suicide, they do not cause suicide, according to researchers of another study investigating the association between these two health problems.

However, experiencing nightmares after a suicide attempt makes it five times more likely that that a person will try to commit suicide again. If you have frequent nightmares, here are a few steps you should take immediately:

• Consult a sleep expert. You can find them at 1,600 centers that are accredited by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM).

• Book a doctor's appointment. Some health problems can cause nightmares, such as sleep apnea, alcoholism, and withdrawal from sleeping pills. Your doctor can provide advice on how to cope with these underlying causes, or refer you to specialists.

• Practice good sleep habits. Try to go to bed at the same time every night. Create a bedtime routine, such as having a warm bath about an hour before going to bed, using sleep enhancement music, and doing deep-breathing exercises. Also, black out your windows to keep out early morning sunlight.

• Try to reduce stress. Anxiety and stress are two of the leading causes of nightmares, reports the National Institutes of Health. Exercise is a natural and effective way to reduce stress. You can also try meditation, better time management and prioritizing, and asking for help.

• Be aware of symptoms for suicide. When you suffer from nightmares--especially if you also have depression—watch out for the warning signs of suicide, which include:

  • Frequent thoughts of suicide
  • Fantasizing or threatening to commit suicide
  • Making a suicide plan, such as giving away possessions or buying a weapon or pills to use
  • Increasing alcohol or drug abuse
  • Uncharacteristic impulsive behavior and unnecessary risk taking
  • Excessive rage or anger
  • Inability to find a reason or purpose to live.

If you, or a loved one, have any of these symptoms of suicide, call the 24-hour National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK, or 911, or go to the nearest emergency room.

Sources: American Academy of Sleep Medicine press release, "Nightmares predict elevated suicidal symptoms."

American Academy of Sleep Medicine, National Sleep Foundation, National Institutes of Health, American Foundation for Suicide Prevention