For decades, researchers have studied the association between mental illness, like depression, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder, and genetics. It is clear that mental disorders are usually inherited, but the patterns of inheritance are still unclear. This is according to Dr. Douglas Gray, psychiatrist and researcher at the University of Utah School of Medicine.
In Dr. Gray’s 2018 study, he examined the four specific gene variants — APH1B, AGBL2, SP110, and SUCLA2 — that appear to increase the risk of suicide. Gray, who studies suicide to understand its risk factors and develop prevention programs, believes the genetic component may account for as high as 45-50% of the risk and feels the need to intervene with families that are at risk.
According to Gray, genetic screenings or reviewing family histories could be an effective method to increase suicide risk awareness and prevent more suicides from happening.
Gray’s study was rooted in the work of Paul H. Wender, another researcher at the University of Utah, in 1980. Wender’s team analysed children who were adopted at birth and completed suicide when they grew up. The study found that the risk of suicide almost always came from the children’s biological relatives and had little to do with the adoptive relatives. In other words, a person’s suicide risks come from biological parents and not from the parents who raise them.
Gray’s team put Wender’s findings to the test in a project that used statistical resources from the Utah Population Database studying 43 extended families with exhibited high suicide risk that ran through several generations. The study determined gene variants prevalent in these families, which were then tested for frequency through a generalised sample of 1,300 suicides in the state.
The team of researchers also conducted “psychological autopsies” and interviewed parents, as well as siblings, friends, and other involved figures, of the individuals who completed suicide.
Jenny Gibson, a mother of two from Arizona, had a sister who took her own life on January 1, 2008. Just four years later, her father also had suicide.
Gibson wondered about the hereditary character of suicide risk, saying that her dad appeared to be very resilient and did not suffer from any mental illness. She mentioned that her dad suffered from the loss of his daughter as any parent would, with depression and heartbreak, but she saw nothing out of the ordinary.
Experts do say that trauma associated with the loss of a loved one could elevate the levels of suicide risk. While Gibson expressed interest in being genetically screened to examine these factors, Gray noted that there is no gene that “dooms” a person to suicide.
In a related study in 2013, which focused on the hereditary nature of mental illness, particularly bipolar disorder, major depression, and schizophrenia, researchers studied the correlation between the disorders and genetic factors but warned against the overemphasis of genes as a predictor of mental health.
Gray compares this to flying, saying that when an airplane crash is the result of several factors going wrong in combination.
Natalia Chimbo-Andrade is the director of community education and outreach for Community Bridges, Inc., a behavioural health agency that works with young people and families in crisis. A suicide attempt survivor, and a mother, she believes that Gray’s work gives opportunity for a broader conversation to understand the warning signs of suicide.
She emphasised the importance of having honest conversations about genetics and health risks as well as other contributing factors. She added talking about warning signs we see not only in other people but also within ourselves and suggested going to people who can help guide us to the proper resources and support.
The proper education and awareness Chimbo-Andrade refers to is vital in preventing suicide, according to Gray. Knowing your family history, as in the case of other diseases like asthma and diabetes is crucial. He mentions that if an individual has a strong family history of significant mood disorders and they are starting to get depressed, they should get help as early as possible to prevent problems before they get worse.
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