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YOUR HEALTH: Can your genes detect suicidal tendencies? Here is what researchers are finding

Researchers involved in one of the largest genetic studies on suicide attempts say DNA may be a factor.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Editor's note: If you or a loved one are experiencing thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255) or chat online by clicking/tapping here. After July 2022, this number will be replaced by a three-digit hotline number that is easier to remember: 9-8-8. 

Every 11 minutes, someone in the United States dies by suicide.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers suicide a serious health problem. In 2020, more than one million people in the U.S. attempted suicide.

Suicidal behaviors have been strongly linked to mental disorders.

"Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States and it's top three among young adults and adolescents," said Vanderbilt University Medical Center Associate Professor Douglas Ruderfer.

The main risk factors for suicide attempt include depression and mental health disorders, but researchers from an international suicide genetics consortium say risk factors may also be hidden within our DNA. 

They looked at the DNA sequence of 500,000 people and found that 30,000 of them had attempted suicide.

"What we found is that there actually is independent genetic risk that is contributing directly to suicide attempt that is not simply through the risk for psychiatric disorders," Ruderfer explained.

The researchers identified that increased risk from a region on chromosome seven

Even after controlling for psychiatric disorders, researchers found that risk was still significant.

"It really supports the idea that there's no one risk factor that just defines suicide attempts," said student researcher Jooeun Kang.

Genetics is just one of many factors. 

"Genetics is not destiny," said Ruderfer. "The hope would be to take that information and to use it as a pathway to understand ways in which we can both reduce risk or find strategies to intervene." 

About 260 researchers from 20 countries contributed to this study. 

They say for every person who dies by suicide, there are 20 attempts.

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New methods to help detect suicide risks

Dr. Catherine Glenn of the University of Rochester and her colleagues set out to examine if new methods of monitoring short-term suicide risk and warning signs are feasible and acceptable.

Are they appropriate and can they be carried out for adolescents at increased risk for suicide attempts?

The researchers paired ecological momentary assessment (EMA) which asks the individual to complete surveys to measure their thoughts, emotions, and behaviors several times each day with actigraphy watches (similar to smartwatches) to monitor sleep cycles. 

The findings of this study could open major avenues for research, assessment, and interventions for people at risk for suicide.

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Diagnosing those at risk

While the link between suicide and mental disorders, in particular depression and alcohol use disorders, is well established in high-income countries, many suicides happen impulsively in moments of crisis with a breakdown in the ability to deal with life stresses, such as financial problems, relationship break-up or chronic pain and illness. 

In addition, experiencing conflict, disaster, violence, abuse, or loss and a sense of isolation are strongly associated with suicidal behavior. 

Suicide rates are also high amongst vulnerable groups who experience discrimination, such as refugees and migrants; indigenous peoples; lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex (LGBTI) persons; and prisoners. 

By far the strongest risk factor for suicide is a previous suicide attempt.

Not an isolated problem

Suicide rates increased 30% between 2000–2018 and declined in 2019 and 2020. It is a leading cause of death in the United States, with 45,979 deaths in 2020. 

This is about one death every 11 minutes. 

The number of people who think about or attempt suicide is even higher. 

In 2020, an estimated 12.2 million American adults seriously thought about suicide, 3.2 million planned a suicide attempt and 1.2 million attempted suicide.

Again, if you or a loved one are experiencing thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255) or chat online by clicking/tapping here. After July 2022, this number will be replaced by a three-digit hotline number that is easier to remember: 9-8-8. 

If this story has impacted your life or prompted you or someone you know to seek or change treatments, please let us know by contacting Jim Mertens at jim.mertens@wqad.com or Marjorie Bekaert Thomas at mthomas@ivanhoe.com.