July 19, 2010

Suicide in Families

Next weekend, I and my brother are going to visit aunts, uncles and cousins whom we have not seen in decades, since 1962 for my brother, 1980 for me. One uncle will not be there. He committed suicide in 1972. His young bride successfully raised their six children alone, and we hope to see all of them.

I was thinking about that because I read some research recently, reported in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, that shows, "Children of parents who commit suicide are three times more likely to commit suicide themselves than children whose parents are living."

Is that evidence that the propensity for suicide is inherited, genetic? We do know that depression can run in families because of genetics. At least one cause of depression, that is: depression caused by a low levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin. But depression has more than one cause and suicide can have more than one cause. Some are genetic. Some are environmental/situational.

Perhaps the most famous family with multi-generational suicides is the Earnest Hemingway family, with five suicides.

My uncle jumped from a St. Louis bridge into the Mississippi River after years of mental complications from a brain injury, the result of a drag racing accident. None of his six children have attempted suicide. What drove him to suicide was not genetic, it was situational, and that type of suicide does not tend to run in families.

This observation is supported by the Johns Hopkins Children's Center research, quoted above, which suggested, "developmental, environmental and genetic factors all influence suicide risk... [but] children whose parents do commit suicide need quick intervention."

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