NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Having a family member who committed suicide triples the likelihood that patients with bipolar disorder will themselves attempt suicide, a new study shows.
Family history of suicide also increases the suicide risk for people with other types of mental illness, Dr. Eduard Vieta of the University of Barcelona in Spain, one of the study’s authors, told Reuters Health.
But this inherited risk should not be seen as fate, but as an opportunity for prevention, he added. “There is room for action, which is important in terms of education.”
Two previous studies identified an increased suicide risk in bipolar patients with a family history of suicide, Vieta and his colleagues note in their report in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, but these studies used data from medical records rather than face-to-face psychiatric evaluation of patients.
To further investigate the link, his team evaluated 374 men and women, ranging in age from 19 to 88 years, who met standard criteria for a diagnosis of bipolar illness. Forty-eight of these patients had a family member who had committed suicide.
People with a family history of suicide were more likely to have anxiety-related personality traits than those who did not. More than 52 percent of the family-history patients reported a suicide attempt compared with 26 percent of patients with no family history of suicide.
“These findings underscore the importance of identifying patients with a family history of suicide in order to provide prompt treatment and careful follow-up,” the researchers conclude.
Suicide should be thought of as a complication of mental illness, just as death from a heart attack is seen as a risk for people with cardiovascular disease, Vieta noted.
“There is a lot of room for prevention if clinicians are aware and people are aware that some people are at higher risk of suicide than others,” Vieta said. Even though genes may largely be responsible for the inheritability of suicidal tendencies, he added, “we still have some free will. Genetics doesn’t mean that you are impelled to do what your genes tell you to do.”
SOURCE: Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, October 2007.