What's in the Water?



“It must be something in the water”

          by Stephen Ashley, Registered Psychotherapist.

Lithium is a natural mineral (a metal in fact) which has a variety of uses. It is present in the batteries that power cameras and mobile phones and is often administered, under close and regular medical supervision, principally to people suffering from the profound mood disturbance of bi-polar disorder. Its effectiveness was discovered when Lithium was administered experimentally to a group of psychiatric patients in 1949. Interestingly, its impact when present in water was known (but not understood) in the second century A.D. 

Like other metals, lithium is often present in small quantities in water supplies and a recent study from Japan has found a correlation between naturally present lithium levels and suicide rates in various communities across the area studied - the higher the levels the lower the incidence of suicidal attempts.  While the levels were still very low, it was suggested that the “protective” effect accrued from accumulation in the body and its impact on the brain.  A previous study from the 1980’s produced a similar result.  What does this mean - should we maybe consider adding lithium to the water supply, like fluoride?

Obviously before such a course of action could be undertaken a considerable greater amount of research would be needed, particularly in terms of potential side effects, which can be considerable from this toxic substance. Some of you will remember the (still on-going) fight against fluoridation of water supplies in the U.K. and perhaps too, how many people suffered from the pollution of drinking water supplies with aluminium sulphate in Camelford towards the end of the last century, and incidentally where police were ordered to reopen the investigation late in 2007. 

But how ethical would it be to include mood stabilising substances in the public water supply and where might this lead? Could this be the start of manipulation of the mood of citizens of a particular country where a government wanted greater control over behaviour of the populace? The U.K. already has more surveillance cameras than any other country in the world.  Many people are disturbed by this and the move towards identity cards and the tendering for computer systems that can scan all mobile phone calls and e-mail messages.

Where lithium is medically prescribed it can only happen where informed consent is given i.e. where a patient agrees to the treatment and understands the implications. Regular blood tests are needed (initially weekly) to manage dosage and impact on the body.    

 I don't seriously believe that dosing the water we drink with lithium is a serious prospect at the moment.  However the acute distress that people suffer prior to making a suicide attempt and, the impact on friends, family, colleagues and sometimes communities where a suicidal person  succeeds in their objective, does warrant further investigation and consideration of the impact of this study on perhaps other ways of helping people in such dire situations. Should you need help, Samaritans in Spain can be contacted on 902 88 35 35.

I would be very interested to have your views on this or any other psychological issue at steveinaltea@gmail.com