Samantha Rebelo 3rd December 2017
Suicide is the cause of death for around 800,000 people in the world each year, according to the World Health Organization. This works out at one death by suicide every 40 seconds somewhere in the world and more than the number of deaths due to homicide and war combined.
The Samaritans suicide statistics report 2017 revealed some startling data about suicide in the UK. There were 6,188 suicides in the UK – an increase of 3.8% on the previous year, with an additional 451 registered suicides in the Republic of Ireland. Among people aged 15 to 29-years-old, it is the second leading cause of death. And in 2017, the rate of suicide amongst women reached its highest in ten years.
All this data is more than enough to make suicide a major public health problem, needing governmental measures and lots of research to understand the problem and prevent new victims.
Society often relates suicide to issues like mental health problems, social problems, family issues, problematic childhoods and unemployment. But could suicide also be a genetic condition?
Geneticists are making more and more discoveries about our genetic predisposition to illness, enabling us to potentially avoid the pain of illnesses and even death. It can be a terrifying prospect to be told that you carry the BRCA1 gene or the CA124 protein, factors that make the probability of developing cancer close to 87%. This is an 87% chance of developing the same illness that you watched kill your grandmother, your aunt and your own mother at the early age of 56. This is exactly what happened to Angelina Jolie in 2013, and after these factors were detected early, she opted to undergo a double mastectomy and remove her ovaries rather than face the illness that had taken so many of her family members.
As for mental illness, according to the National Institute of Health: “Scientists have long recognised that many psychiatric disorders tend to run in families, suggesting potential genetic roots. In fact, recent studies have turned up limited evidence of shared genetic risk factors, such as for schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, autism and schizophrenia, and depression and bipolar disorder.”
Surprisingly, genetic studies are also showing that what we previously believed to be behavioural choices, can indeed be genetically determined. For example, a study from Virginia Commonwealth University found that genetic factors can be an explanation for divorce. Part of the study discovered that adopted children are more likely to follow the marital behaviour of their biological parents over their adopted parent. Researcher Dr Jessica Salvatore, says: “Across a series of designs using Swedish national registry data, we found consistent evidence that genetic factors primarily explained the intergenerational transmission of divorce”.
Despite the significant social impact of divorce, the discovery of gene-related or even gene-determined divorces hasn’t had much of an impact on the general public. But in the case of suicide, where lives are lost, and the immediate impact on friends and family are more distinctly identifiable, this study might help us to reflect on how much of our lives are a choice and how much is determined.
Suicide can seemingly come out of nowhere and even the people closest to a suicidal individual can easily miss the warning signs, missing the opportunity to prevent a tragedy. The discovery of a “suicide gene” could be a double-edged sword. On one hand, individuals could more easily identify the need to seek out much need psychological and psychiatric treatment. Likewise, it can also make it easier for loved ones to provide help and develop a support network. On the other hand, it could also label the individual as a “genetic suicidal”. Not only changing how the outside world sees this person, but also as they see themselves, potentially affecting their sense of sense, their self-confidence and making them a lifelong prisoner to this label.
The number of suicides in a family may support the idea of gene-determined suicide and there are a number of historical examples. Take the astonishing and sad case of writer Ernest Hemingway. His father killed himself in 1928. In 1961, Hemingway died by suicide at 62 years old. His brother, sister, and granddaughter Margaux would also take their own lives. Another one of Hemingway’s granddaughters, Mariel, has fought her entire life against both suicidal associations of her surname and her own mental health issues and continues to do so,working with mental health organisations to provide help to those in danger.
The Hemingways are just the tip of the iceberg. The singer Kurt Cobain killed himself at the infamous musical age of 27 years old, following in the steps of two suicidal uncles. The Pulitzer Prize-winning J. Anthony Lukas killed himself in 1997. His mother did the same when the author was just eight years old. Another Pulitzer-winner, the poet Sylvia Plath, died by suicide at only 30 years old in 1963. Her son, who was only one-year-old at the time of her death, killed himself 46 years after, in 2009.
Studies into genetic heritability have “revealed a variant of a gene called RGS2 that appeared more often in those who tried to kill themselves”. On top of which, a study conducted by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, found evidence that the gene for what is called “brain-derived neurotrophic factor” is related to suicidal behaviour.
If you discover that you have the gene or protein, the same genes and proteins that give you 87% of chance of developing breast and ovarian cancer, you can make the brave and difficult decisions to have the affected organs removed. But if you discover that you have the suicide gene, what can you do?
If chemotherapy and similar treatments are not even guaranteed to save you from cancer, would you put your faith in therapy and drugs – that are less researched and less understood – to save you from suicide? Would your family and friends share your faith?
Each day science finds new ways for us to live better and longer lives. But it can also throw doubt on how much freedom we have to design our life considering how much we are influenced by our genes. These discoveries are changing the boundaries between behaviour and illness, and how we deal with them forever. If getting a divorce is genetic, if suicide is genetic, can it be considered an illness in the same way cancer is? How much do you want to know about your genetic composition? How much do you want the world to know about your genetic composition? And what’s more: how can you deal with this information in a healthy and beneficial way?
Additional reporting by Richard Worth
Samantha Rebelo 3rd December 2017