The Sorrow and Inheritance of Suicide

The Sorrow of Suicide | NIH News in Health – May 2012

Suicide is tragic. It cuts a life short, and it devastates the family, friends and loved ones left behind.

The children of people who die by suicide are more likely to later die by suicide themselves.

This is because we inherit not only our parents’ genes but also the epigenetic markers on those genes, so we can “inherit” a depressed or stressed state or behavior from our parents thru epigenetics and pass our own stress down to our children as well.  

“When you’re in a suicidal state, you’re kind of closing down your options. You see it as the only solution. You’re not really able to entertain other ideas,” says Dr. Jane

Only 20 years ago, little was known about the biology of suicide. But NIH-funded research has helped to open up new avenues for exploring the underlying causes of suicide. While the biological details are still being worked out, scientists have uncovered many clues to identify people at greatest risk for suicidal thoughts and actions.

Recognizing those at risk is essential. Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death nationwide, and it’s the 3rd leading cause of death among adolescents. Nearly 37,000 Americans died by suicide in 2009, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

In the past, many scientists believed that suicide was a terrible side effect of other mental disorders. But why is it that only a small proportion of people with depression or other mental conditions attempt suicide?

A growing body of evidence suggests that there is something unique about their biology that can tip them over the edge.

“We’ve found many systems in the brain that are broken with suicide, especially in the front part above the eye—called the orbital prefrontal cortex.

That area of the brain is involved in inhibiting behaviors that are damaging, like being unable to inhibit the urge to kill oneself,”

I’ve personally felt this. A powerful, almost palpable force paralyzes my self-destructive urges and refuses to let me go any further. This is our survival instinct performing its most basic function: keeping us alive.

Over the decades, Arango and her colleagues have conducted detailed studies of brain structure and biology in hundreds of suicide victims. They’ve found that certain brain regions in suicide have fewer nerve cells and altered receptors for neurotransmitters.

Abnormalities related to the neurotransmitter serotonin have been linked to suicide in many studies. Scientists have not yet figured out if these flaws in serotonin directly contribute to suicide or—more likely—if serotonin is one part of a complicated chemical pathway to suicide.

Serotonin is also believed to play a key role in depression and response to stress and trauma.

Stress and trauma certainly play a big role in suicide, especially early life stress,” says Dr. Douglas Meinecke, an NIH scientist who studies the molecular details of mental disorders.

Several research teams have found evidence that traumatic childhood experiences—such as abuse or violence—can “tag” certain genes in the brain.

These tags, called epigenetic markers, are actually molecules that attach to genes. They can have a lasting effect on whether the genes are turned off or on.

And this means we inherit our parents’ genes with their epigenetic switches set by their life experiences and behaviors. In this way, not just physical characteristics, but also the epigenetic shadows of experiences and behaviors can be passed down through the generations.

Some NIH-funded studies have shown that suicide victims who were abused as children have unique epigenetic markers on certain genes.

Current approaches to treating or preventing suicide generally aim to relieve the accompanying mental condition or other risk factors.

One of the biggest indicators of suicide risk is when somebody begins talking about suicide,” says Dr. David Brent, a psychiatrist at the University of Pittsburgh who studies suicide in families.

We used to think that talking about suicide meant you weren’t going to do it, but it’s really the opposite.

I agree. When I’m feeling so awful I don’t want to be alive anymore, I want to talk about it with my friends, knowing they’ll always sympathize with my sentiments and argue against self-destruction.

Never ignore someone’s talk of suicide. You can ask directly if the person has ever thought of harming himself or herself. Most people will answer honestly, and the question itself won’t push a person to attempt suicide.

I’m so glad they say this because the involvement of other people may be the only thing that can really help. That awful hollow feeling of being all alone in this world with our troubles can be filled by the sympathy and kindness of another person.

The more warning signs, the greater the risk of suicide. Get help from a mental health professional or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK.

Suicide Warning Signs

  • Talking about wanting to die
  • Actively looking for a way to kill oneself
  • Talking about feeling hopeless or having no purpose
  • Talking about feeling trapped or in unbearable pain
  • Talking about being a burden to others
  • Abusing alcohol or drugs
  • Acting anxious, agitated or reckless
  • Having sleep troubles
  • Withdrawing or feeling isolated
  • Having extreme mood swings
  • Giving away belongings, including treasured objects
(I’m astonished that the concept of inheriting behaviors is mentioned several times in the bible “…visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children to the third and the fourth generation.” )

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