Researchers at Johns Hopkins University have discovered a chemical alteration in a single human gene that is linked to the risk of a suicide attempt. According to study leader Zachary Kaminsky, PhD, an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the JHU School of Medicine, the results of this study could be a first step in developing a simple blood test that will help doctors predict suicide risk.

Described in The American Journal of Psychiatry, the study suggests that chemical changes in a gene involved in the function of the brain’s response to stress hormones plays a significant role in suicide risk. These changes can turn a normal reaction to everyday stress into suicidal thoughts and behaviors.

“Suicide is a major preventable public health problem, but we have been stymied in our prevention efforts because we have no consistent way to predict those who are at increased risk of killing themselves,” explains Kaminsky in a press release from Hopkins Medicine. “With a test like ours, we may be able to stem suicide rates by identifying those people and intervening early enough to head off a catastrophe.”

A blood test that accurately predicts suicide risk would be good news for the U.S. military, which has experienced an alarming increase in the number of suicides among veterans over the past few years, particularly males under the age of 30.

“What we envision, potentially, is using this test in psychiatric emergency rooms. For example, it could dictate closeness of monitoring and treatment options, and drive potentially more fast acting treatment in someone who is really high risk,” said Kaminsky in an interview with The Huffington Post.

To read the abstract or to download the full article, visit the American Journal of Psychiatry Web site.
In January of this year, the once-taboo subject of teen suicide was brought front-and-center with students at Oak Lawn Community High School in Chicago. According to a recent Chicago Tribune article entitled “Teen suicide: More schools bring issue out of shadows” (February 21, 2011), each Oak Lawn freshman received a short questionnaire about depressive symptoms and suicidal thoughts. Uncomfortable questions were asked: Had they lost interest in everything? Did they feel they weren’t as smart or good-looking as most other people? Were they thinking about killing themselves? For three years, Oak Lawn has been screening freshmen for signs of depression or suicidal thinking. This year, 270 students filled out the questionnaire in their health classes, and a fifth of them were referred to counselors for follow-up interviews. About half of those teens were offered free in-school therapy or referrals to outside counselors.

Until recently, the topic of teen suicide was avoided by many schools. “There were some people who felt that if you talk about it, you might motivate students or put the thought in students’ minds,” said John Knewitz, the school district’s assistant superintendent for student services, speaking with Tribune reporter John Keilman. “The more we studied it, we came to the realization that that was not the case. It was something that needed to be talked about openly” (http://articles.chicagotribune.com).

Last year, Illinois passed a law encouraging teachers and school staff to update their training on suicide prevention. Erika’s Lighthouse, a mental health advocacy group formed in memory of a girl who took her life at 14, offers programs to Chicago area middle schools that help students and their families recognize the signs of depression; the group also offers instruction to school officials. In response to recent suicides, other schools have updated their health curriculum to include depression and suicide, started Facebook pages for mental health awareness, and provided mental health hotline numbers on the back of student IDs.

Screening for childhood and adolescent depression and suicidal ideation may become more common in the coming years as schools try to find ways to address these and other mental health crises in their student population. How are schools in your area responding to this issue? Is the topic of teen suicide avoided, or are there programs in place that address it directly with students?

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