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Growing Group of Scientists Believes Suicide Is a Disease, Not a Symptom

Update Date: May 20, 2013 03:05 PM EDT

Is suicide a disease? It seems that a growing group of psychiatrists believe so, and it may have ramifications for how it is treated.

According to New Scientist, the common perception is that suicide is a behavior that arises from a mood disorder. However, as many as 10 percent of suicides occur in people who have no history of mental health problems.

Suicide also appears to be hereditary, occurring more often in some families than in others. One study found that identical twins had a 15 percent chance of exhibiting similar suicidal behaviors, while that was true in only 1 percent of cases of fraternal twins. Another study found that, in children who were adopted and who exhibited suicidal tendencies, suicide was six times as common in their biological families as in their adoptive ones.

Perhaps the most convincing evidence for the theory are the brains of people who have committed suicide. When compared to people who were diagnosed with mood disorders but who died of natural causes, people who have committed suicide have differences in their level of serotonin and changes in the prefrontal cortex, which is linked to high-level decision-making.

However, even proponents of the theory note that there is no neurological cause for suicide. They believe that people who are genetically predisposed for suicide likely undergo environmental triggers, like abuse or anxiety, that exacerbate risk for suicide.

Even if the theory turns out to be correct, researchers are not quite sure what that means. Finding genetic markers for suicide would not mean that clinicians would know when the condition would rear its head. However, it could affect treatment. Certain medications elevate the risk of suicide, so doctors could stay away from those when treating a person with a genetic predisposition for suicide. It would also affect whether clinicians would order a patient to be sent to a psychiatric hospital, as release from such a hospital elevates the risk for suicide.

According to the Huffington Post Canada, suicide rates have dramatically risen over the past several years, increasing by 28 percent over the past decade. It is particularly common among American Indians; in Canada, as well, suicide is the leading cause of death among First Nations youth under the age of 44.

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