As we have noted in other writing, genetic testing may offer help in identifying veterans at risk for suicide. However, there is a risk that a veteran, or anyone, could be stigmatized by this, be unable to get health insurance, have trouble getting a job, or find themselves more socially isolated than all-too-often happens with recently discharged members of the military. Is the potential value of genetic testing worth the risk of social isolation, economic harm, and denial of necessary factors like health insurance? Thus we look at suicide risk and genetic testing and the right to privacy.
Genetic Risk Factors for Suicide
There are many known risk factors for suicide. These include depression, PTSD, other mental illnesses, traumatic brain syndrome, social isolation, substance abuse problems, legal or criminal problems, history of abuse, chronic pain, aggressive or impulsive tendencies, relationship problems, and more. Many of these risk factors have some degree of genetic linkage as well as a basis in life experiences. Thus, for example, knowing before someone joins the military that they may be prone to certain problems would be useful in dealing with them either by choosing not to accept them or by more effectively dealing with certain issues during military service and after discharge.
Additionally, there appears to be a genetic linkage to suicide independent of any of the know risk factors. This, especially, could be useful to know when trying to reduce the incidence of suicide and eventually eliminate this curse that afflicts our fallen heroes. If the predictive value of genetic testing can be firmed up and made truly useful in helping reduce suicides, should it be used considering its potential downsides.
Risks of Genetic Testing
There is very little physical risk for genetic testing which generally involves a swab of the inside of the cheek or a blood sample. The first line of risk is what happens when a person learns the results of their tests. People can get anxious, depressed, or even guilty. The fact of the matter is that many times a genetic test will indicate that a medical or psychiatric problem may be more likely but will not make that problem certainty. People end up spending their lives worrying about something that never happens. And, if friends or family find out about the results of such tests the person can be stigmatized over something that also will never happen.
When You Cannot Get Health Insurance or a Job Due to Genetic Testing
A very real concern about genetic testing is that insurance companies may refuse to insure a person because of increased risk of having to pay for care for expensive conditions. Companies that provide health insurance for their employees may refuse to hire someone because they, or a family member, might develop an expensive medical condition which will in turn increase their insurance premiums.
The ultimate risk would be that a person might be subject to legal issues due to the potential risk they may be deemed to pose a risk to society based on the results of their tests.
How Accurate Is Genetic Testing?
Genetic testing today is accurate in that it shows what genes a person has. The inaccuracy comes from what science call tell us that a given set of genes predicts with any degree of certainty. In the case of suicide, genetic testing at its current level of knowledge can tell us if someone is prone to certain conditions like depression but cannot tell us for certain if this will happen or even provide odds on how likely that will happen. Since these conditions may be risk factors for suicide there might be the potential to intervene before the fact to reduce the likelihood of depression which, beside helping the person lead a happier life, would reduce the risk of suicide.
All of this supposes that there would be practical methods in place and that the cost of such measures would be such that the chain of events started by genetic testing would be more cost effective that other approaches such as developing psychedelic medicines which have shown great promise in helping vets with PTSD and depression.