A recent study conducted by researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University sheds new light on how genetic and environmental factors influence the risk of suicidal thoughts in adolescents.
As one of the leading causes of death among adolescents in the United States, suicide is a major public health concern. however, the underlying factors that contribute to suicidal thoughts and behaviors in this population are not well understood.
Previous studies in adults have suggested that a person’s risk of having suicidal thoughts, plans, and attempts is influenced by negative life events, family history, and genetics, but there is little research. focused on teenagers.
Through this study, published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, the research team gleaned new insights into how an adolescent’s genetic risk and exposure to stressful life events contribute to thoughts suicidal. These findings could help clinicians, families, educators, and community members better prevent suicidal thoughts and behaviors in adolescents.
Researchers from the VCU Virginia Institute for Psychiatric and Behavioral Genetics analyzed clinical evaluations and genetic data collected as part of the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children, a long-term study conducted by the University of Bristol that surveyed children from infancy through adulthood. They specifically assessed both the participants’ genetic risk for suicide attempts and their exposure to adverse life experiences between the ages of 16 and 17. The team compared this data with surveys that documented whether participants harbored suicidal thoughts and feelings of hopelessness at age 17. Additionally, they examined how these effects vary by biological sex.
Their research found that suicidal thoughts were associated with drug use, bullying, and failure in both male and female participants. There was evidence that experiencing the death of a parent also increased the risk of suicidal thoughts in boys, while school failure increased the risk of suicidal thoughts in girls. Additionally, the researchers found that, among participants, drug use while having a genetic predisposition to suicide further exacerbated the risk of suicidal thoughts.
The results highlight the role that negative life events play in triggering suicidal thoughts in adolescence, but also show that certain experiences can have a particularly negative impact on girls who are already at a high genetic risk for suicide.
Severine LannoyPh.D., postdoctoral researcher at the VCU Virginia Institute for
Psychiatric and Behavioral Genetics and corresponding author of the study, recently discussed his research and latest findings with VCU News.
Why are suicidal thoughts and behaviors so prevalent in adolescence?
Adolescence is characterized by many changes, such as the development of identity and the initiation of risk taking. Also, at this stage of life, an adolescent’s ability to cope with stressful life events is still maturing. Thus, negative life experiences can have a greater impact on young people and lead to suicidal thoughts and behaviors.
Did any of the results of your study surprise you?
We know that drug use is one of the highest risk factors for suicidal thoughts and behaviors in adults, but I was surprised to see that this risk factor was already influential even in adolescence.
The study results also revealed that some of the risk factors for suicidal thoughts differ between boys and girls. Why did you look at gender differences in risk factors and what do you think is behind your results?
We conducted gender analyzes because we know that the prevalence of suicidal behavior
thoughts and behaviors are different depending on the sex. We tend to see that girls have a higher risk of suicidal ideation, while the risk of death by suicide is higher in boys.
We did indeed find some differences between boys and girls in our analysis. For example, our results showed that in girls, using drugs while having a high genetic risk for suicide increased the risk of suicidal thoughts, but we did not observe the same effect in boys. I think the reasons for this finding need to be explained in more detail, but it could be because girls tend to have a higher risk of suicidal ideation, which is what we were measuring in this study. If our aim was to assess the risk of suicide attempts and death, it is possible that genetics is more of a contributing factor in boys.
How does this research help us move closer to preventing suicidal behavior in adolescents?
A key part of suicide prevention is knowing what specific factors put adolescents at risk of committing suicide. Our results suggest that monitoring the impact of certain negative life events during adolescence could help identify adolescents most vulnerable to developing suicidal thoughts and therefore most in need of intervention efforts. I also think it’s important that this kind of preventive care extends beyond clinicians. Parents, family members, caregivers, and other adults in a teen’s life should be aware of the risk factors that contribute to suicidal thoughts and behaviors. Prevention really is a team effort.
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