According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), over 1 million adults report attempting suicide every single year.
And according to the World Health Organization, 800,000 die due to suicide every single year. As you can see, an abundance of people around the world are suffering enough to not only consider suicide but go through with it.
And while there is no one cause for suicide, mental illness is often involved—depression, for example, is most commonly associated with suicide, which is typically undiagnosed or untreated in these individuals. This condition, left untreated (as well as many others) increases one’s risk for suicide.
There are currently no treatments specifically approved to stop suicidal thoughts. Instead, identifying and treating underlying mental illnesses as well as coping with any stressors are essential to reducing the risk. This, however, may soon be joined by an unlikely ally: laughing gas. Researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis are studying the potential use of laughing gas (nitrous oxide) as an effective treatment method in patients hospitalized for suicidal thoughts. More specifically, the study is exploring whether laughing gas may speed up recovery and even reduce one’s risk of suicide.
Charles R. Conway, MD, a professor of psychiatry, and Peter Nagele, MD, an associate professor of anesthesiology, head the study, as they have been studying whether the substance—known to lessen pain and anxiety in dental patients—could provide relief to depressed individuals. And the fact that 85% of suicide attempts are made by clinically depressed individuals has inspired them to expand their research and investigate whether laughing gas may help suicidal patients as well.
“Suicide attempts and suicidal thinking often stem from an individual’s belief that there’s no way out of a situation other than ending one’s life,” explained Conway. “We think nitrous oxide might help patients break out of that mindset and realize they do have options.” While as many as one-third of patients with depression don’t respond to existing treatments, Conway’s research team is confident that laughing gas will finally provide relief, thanks to an initial study that revealed two-thirds of depressed participants treated with the nitrous oxide saw improvement in their symptoms.
Most existing antidepressants work by targeting norepinephrine and serotonin receptors; this, however, can take weeks to actually alleviate one’s symptoms. Nitrous oxide, on the other hand, interacts with another kind of receptor (NMDA glutamate) and can improve symptoms within hours. Furthermore, it has minimal side effects: “Nitrous oxide may very quickly improve depression in these patients. The gas has very few side effects because it leaves the body very quickly once people stop breathing it,” explained Nagele. “However, it appears from our previous research that the antidepressant effects of nitrous oxide may linger in the brain long after the drug is out of the body.”
In their study, subjects—who have previously attempted suicide—will be split into a few groups: one group will breathe a mix of oxygen and nitrous oxide for one hour, every other day, for a full week; another will receive antidepressants or talk therapy on top of this same cycle of laughing gas; and the third group will receive standard treatment (antidepressants and psychotherapy) along with oxygen without the nitrous oxide for one hour, every other day, for a week.
Conway explains that that they will evaluate the participants in the weeks following their discharge and possibly provide them with additional treatment: “We’ll do outpatient follow-ups in the weeks after the patients have been discharged to see whether their suicidal thoughts or depression might be re-emerging. Suicidal thinking often occurs following short-term psychiatric hospitalizations. If such problems re-emerge, the study is designed to provide ‘booster’ treatments with nitrous oxide, which we believe will continue to lower the likelihood of future suicidal thoughts.”
Suicidal thoughts can manifest in anybody’s mind and be extremely difficult to experience—there is, however, treatment out there and emerging studies such as this one that hope to discover additional treatment options. If you, or someone you know, begins to experience suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 for immediate help and support.
Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, Jim Dryden. (2017). Can laughing gas help deter suicide? [Press release]. Retrieved from https://medicine.wustl.edu/news/can-laughing-gas-help-deter-suicide/