Suicide among veterans occurs at a rate of about 25 a day according to official statistics and probably a higher rate closer to 40 a day. There are issues with how deaths are reported state to state that result in a significant number of suicides by veterans and others being left out of official reports. No matter the precise rate of suicide it is a terrible problem. In order to reduce and eliminate all suicides it is important to identify who is at highest risk. Are some people more prone to suicide? The commonly noted risk factors in veterans include PTSD, depression, traumatic brain syndrome, recent discharge for the military, social isolation, substance abuse disorders, and history of abuse including as a child. These are all factors that have to do with life experience. Are there people who are prone to suicide aside from any life experiences?
Genetic Suicide Risk
An old argument in psychology and psychiatry was about nature versus nurture. How much of what a person turns out to be in life is due to the genes they got from their parents and how much is from life experiences or lack of the same. Although it is clear that a condition such as PTSD increases the risk of suicide in a military veteran it is fair to ask if some members of the military are more prone to develop PTSD after traumatic events than others. The point of studying this issue is that by having a better understanding of what makes someone prone to suicide and even being able to precisely identify the individuals most at risk it will possible to intervene more successfully to reduce and eventually eliminate veteran and other suicides.
Genetic Suicide Attempt Study
The largest genetic study to date was completed in 2021. Researchers identified a region of chromosome 7 where certain variations of DNA correlate with an increased risk of attempted suicide. The route by which these chromosome variations cause an increased risk of suicide appears to by making known risk factors more likely. The study results showed that sleep disturbances, generally poorer health, risk-taking behavior, smoking, major depression, and psychiatric disorders were all more prevalent in study subjects who had the genetic changes.
Need for Identification of Those at Risk for Suicide
The study authors note that roughly 800,000 people take their own lives every year and that there are roughly twenty non-fatal attempts at suicide for every death. Even non-fatal attempts result in an economic and social burden, reduced quality of life, and disability. Because suicidal thoughts and, thus, suicidal planning can be reduced with various interventions, identifying those at risk as early as possible is ideal. Considering that we now see psychedelic medicines as offering exceptional treatment value for risk factors like PTSD and depression, this only make the task of identifying those at risk more urgent.
The Genetic Suicide Study
The research in question looked at DNA sequences in more than half a million people of whom thirty thousand at made at least one attempt at suicide. They found significant statistical correlations between specific DNA variations and suicide attempts. Although there was also an overlap between conditions like chronic pain, smoking, sleep disturbances, major depression, and other psychiatric disorders, the strongest correlation was between the genetic variations and suicide attempts. As such the researchers believe that there is a substantial subset of people for whom attempts at ending their own lives cannot be blamed on the usual set of psychiatric and non-psychiatric risk factors.
The finding of this study were confirmed by subsequent analysis of DNA from fourteen thousand veterans from the Million Veterans Program, all of whom had attempted suicide.
Minnesota Twins Study
We are not referring to the professional baseball team but rather a study at the University of Minnesota carried out over years. These researchers tracked down identical twins who were separated virtually at birth and raised in different families and even in different nations. Surprising results of the study included unique traits that separated twins shared when studies twenty, thirty, forty years or more after separation. Two male twins married women with the same name, became professional firefighters, drank the same brand of beer, and extended their pinky fingers when holding the beer can. Two Chinese twins became professors of mathematics, one in China where he was born and one in the USA where he went when adopted. To our knowledge this study has not looked at suicide risk but it does show how genetic factors can overcome all sorts of environmental factors and cause specific character traits, quirks, and choices of profession. As such the genetic study of suicide risk seems to make sense. It occurs to us that there are genetic factors that, if known, would advise against some people going into the military, police work, or other occupations where exposure to trauma is more likely. Likewise, knowing who has an extra risk factor based on genetic testing would seem to be a way to help support veterans find the specific help they need to avoid worsening their risk of suicide.