Mental illness has often been linked with suicide. However, not all individuals who suffer from mental illnesses die from suicide. A study conducted by Indiana University where a questionnaire was developed together with a blood test to pinpoint genetic changes in suicidal individuals has revealed that while 90% of people who kill themselves have been diagnosed with depression – only 2% of people with depression actually kill themselves.

“Those who are serious about taking their own lives are often the least likely to reveal it and seek help,” explains Gustavo Turecki, head of psychiatry department at McGill University in Montreal, Canada.

This suggests risk factors that may be genetic in origin are to be accounted for. New study and collaboration between University of Utah Health and pharmaceutical company, Janssen Research & Development seeks to identify the genetic factors in high-risk individuals and set out new strategies to prevent more suicides.

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Studying biomarkers to strategise suicide prevention

The partnership is advancing studies linking genetics and suicides by potentially developing new medications that will prevent patients from committing the act. Utah Suicide Genetics Project’s extensive DNA database will be used, studying more than 3,500 global suicide cases that have been stripped off names and other identifying factors to protect the privacy of the deceased and its living relatives. Utah is also the perfect setting as it is among the top contributing states in the US for suicide cases –more than 22 in 100,000 people, with suicide being the leading cause of death in youths aged between 10 and 17.

Some progress has been made in identifying the biomarkers associated with suicide. However, the daunting task lies in identifying one that can be clinically acted upon and fashioning treatment and medication that can be given to patients. In addition, researchers are also trying to understand environmental factors that have a hand in affecting those genes, such as how an individual’s experience through childhood trauma might increase suicidal tendencies. This may prove to be challenging as the external factors are many.

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Other challenges include developing a preventive treatment within the field of psychiatry that treats genetic information that suggests suicidal tendencies, instead of a patient’s observable symptoms.

“Analysing genetic factors and potential treatment pathways might help establish the efficacy of an existing medication or behavioural interventions. It could also reduce the often lengthy trial-and-error process physicians and patients go through to match individuals with the most effective medications,” remarks Hilary Coon, research professor in psychiatry at the University of Utah, and the project’s lead investigator.

Statistics of those who contacted Befrienders Kuala Lumpur with suicidal thoughts in 2015 – 2016. Photo credit: Befrienders/NST
Statistics of those who contacted Befrienders Kuala Lumpur with suicidal thoughts in 2015 – 2016. Photo credit: Befrienders/NST

Crying out for help closer to home

Meanwhile in Malaysia and Singapore, suicide rates are also on the rise. Based on the report by Befrienders Kuala Lumpur, 20 in 68 people who call in daily have suicidal thoughts. The number of people who are crying out for help have also increased by 16% from 2015 to 2016. Similar to the scenario in Utah, the non-governmental organisation’s publicity director, Ardy Ayadali divulges that suicide is apparent in youths, aged between 15 and 29.

Triggers for the suicide include depression, broken relationships, the presence of social media and subsequently cyberbullying. In this regard, Ardy says, “sometimes people who posted about their suicidal intentions online received negative feedback and were accused of being attention seekers. Sometimes netizens even challenged them to go through with it.”

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Another point of concern is the youth’s inability to communicate face-to-face. Professor Datuk Dr Chiam Heng Keng, a leading figure in child and adolescent psychology and early childhood education expresses that “they probably cannot communicate with their parents, teachers or peers about their stress and fears, and are so desperate to be heard that they resort to the Internet.” In turn, virtual friends might poke fun at the individual’s problem for lack of understanding.

Chiam urges parents to greatly engage their children and for early childhood educators to be more sensitive in identifying and dealing with the grave issue. MIMS