What We Know About Suicide, Scientifically

The tragedy of Robin Williams’ death has pushed forward some needed and candid discussion about depression, mental illness, and suicide. But it’s also brought forward the science of deliberate self-harm, and not everything is as clear-cut as we think, according to the people who study it.

A Genetic Risk

It sounds absurd, on paper, but in fact there’s evidence that there’s some sort of genetic connection. Suicide tends to run in families, and while our first impulse is to note that mental health issues such as depression have genetic links, a completed suicide in the family and mental illness are actually independent factors. In fact, according to the CDC, a past suicide in the family and a history of child abuse are actually the two most important factors, coming in ahead of mental illness.

Which in turn raises the question… can we test for this genetic pattern? And can we prevent it?

A Test For Self-Harm?

There are, in fact, tests for suicide coming to market, but they’re controversial in the scientific community to say the least. Part of the problem is that while we’ve sequenced the human genome, it’s a bit like having the parts list to some IKEA furniture. You’ve got the wood, screws, plastic parts and Allen wrenches, but are you building a bookcase, a table, or a nightstand? We’re still working out how it all goes together.

It’s also controversial because of how the public views genetics, so much so that even the companies bringing the test to market will only allow it to be used on those already taking antidepressants. It’s worth noting that we’re talking about risk, not certainty; far too often, genetics are viewed as a form of destiny, instead of just something that determines the range of likelihood.

Self-harm is no more someone’s fate than any other condition. In fact, it’s been found that medical treatment, family care and intervention, even religious belief, can reduce the risk substantially. Having something to live for, it turns out, can be more powerful than any type of genetics.

If you’re considering self-harm or you believe someone you love is doing so, contact the Suicide Prevention Resource Center online or at 1-800-273-TALK.