Last year nearly eight million Americans considered attempting suicide--many of them young adults. Suicide rates are increasing, and several recent studies have confirmed that there's a family connection.

In a Danish study, a family history of suicide more than doubled the likelihood that a person would commit suicide. Also, when psychiatric illness that required hospitalization existed in the family, it raised the risk of suicide by about 50 percent among people who didn't have psychiatric illness.

Some other studies, including one led by Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, have also investigated this genetic link, and have identified a gene region on chromosome 2 that appears to be connected to suicidal behavior. This same area is also linked to bipolar disease, depression and alcohol dependence - all of which tend to run in families.

Other Factors that Increase Risk of Suicide

Suicide risk factors fall into three categories--personal (biological), environmental, and socio-cultural. They include:

  • mental disorders such as depression and schizophrenia
  • alcohol and substance abuse
  • history of physical or sexual abuse
  • chronic illness or physical disability
  • previous suicide attempt
  • financial problems
  • job loss or unemployment
  • grief
  • isolation or no social network
  • cultural beliefs (for instance, suicide is honorable)
  • antidepressant use under age 25

Even if there's a family history of suicidal behavior, or you have other risk factors, it doesn't mean that you'll be affected, however. According to the International Association for Suicide Prevention (IASP), the causes of this health problem are complex and interact with each other.

Some factors that can protect a person from attempting suicide include:

  • strong family ties and community support
  • strong cultural and religious beliefs against suicide
  • good problem solving or conflict resolution skills
  • easy access to medical and psychological support
  • lack of access to ways to kill oneself

Also, it helps to recognize the events that can trigger suicide attempts, such as:

  • death of a loved one
  • end of a relationship
  • chronic or long-term pain or illness
  • a physically traumatic event such as a sexual assault or disfiguring accident
  • financial ruin
  • returning from war

If any of these situations apply to you, or you're at increased risk (such as having a family history or depression), seek medical attention or psychological counseling as soon as possible.

Immediate Ways to Avert a Suicide Attempt

According to the IASP, there are nearly 20 times as many attempts as there are completed suicides. If you are seriously considering it, here are a few immediate steps you can take to protect yourself:

• Visit an emergency room for chronic pain, other physical illness, substance abuse, or mood disorder. If you're taking medication that increases suicidal thoughts, insist on switching to another drug or ask about alternative therapies.

• Make the effort to socialize. Call or visit a good friend or close family member. Or, to just get out of the house attend a support group meeting, go to an aerobics class, or volunteer at a charity.

• Call a helpline. If you can't contact a relative or friend, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-873-TALK (8255), or 911.

• Throw away any item you have to commit suicide, such as pills, drugs, or a gun.


International Association for Suicide Prevention, Johns Hopkins Medical Center press release, Suicide Prevention Resource Center

The Lancet, 2002 Oct 12;360(9340):1126-30. "Suicide risk in relation to family history of completed suicide and psychiatric disorders: a nested case-control study based on longitudinal registers." Qin P, Agerbo E, Mortensen PB.