The one thing absolutely, positively guaranteed to all of us unequivocally at birth is that one day, we all will die. We are all going to eventually die. The big unknown is when and where. However, for some people there may be a genetic predisposition for committing suicide. Scientists have actually identified a genetic mutation that more than doubles the risk of suicidal behavior in those people with it.
The Genetics of Suicide
In her book History of a Suicide: My Sister’s Unfinished Life, Jill Biolosky, tells of a study published in the American Journal of Medical Genetics in 2000 in which researchers found a mutation in a gene regulating the brain’s level of serotonin, a neurotransmitter carrying messages between brain cells that are thought to be involved in the regulation of emotion, linked to suicidal behavior. The study showed an abnormality in a specific gene that codes for the serotonin receptors. Hence, suggesting that, when the gene is present, the receptors are somehow faulty and the brain doesn’t absorb a healthy amount of serotonin. The million-dollar question is whether this gene was altered because of environmental stressors or that way at birth.
Suicide does tend to run in families. It does in mine. On my paternal side, my grandfather, his father, his brother, and a first cousin all took their lives by shooting themselves in the head. Pills are by far the method of choice for women, and I used pills for my attempt. Biolosky tells of a Swedish study reporting in the American Journal of Psychiatry that a suicide in a family doubles the risk of suicide for other family members. Is it the power of suggestion or genetics?
Evidence that suicide runs in families has been found in both case reports and epidemiological studies due to genetics and social modeling. For example, one study found that identical twins had a stronger incidence of suicide than fraternal twins, even when they were raised separately.
Science has also discovered solid evidence of a genetic link to depression which is a rogue chromosome found in people with that condition. Nature or nurture?
The Power of Suggestion
While I do believe there is evidence to suggest a genetic predisposition for depression and a suicidal tendency in my case, I also think the power of suggestion and learned behavior comes into play strongly for me as well as a lack of adequate mental health coping skills. Because of my early exposure to it, suicide was always a legitimate option in my mind.
Suicide is socially contagious. Suicide contagion can spread through a school, a community, or the public as a celebrity “suicide wave.” When the media splashes the details of a suicide all over, copycat suicides follow. After Marilyn Monroe’s death in 1962, suicides for the month went way up, and suicides across the nation in white females in their 30s and 40s in the year after she died increased significantly. There was a similar uptick after Kurt Cobain died in 1994.
All of this scientific evidence comes as a bit of a relief to me – not because I am trying to find a justification for my suicide attempt, but because it helps me understand my actions more and have more compassion for myself. Hopefully, it will allow others to do the same for anyone attempting to or taking their own life and eventually lessen the stigmas associated with suicide and depression.
I can always hope.