University of Utah Health
As shown in this graphic, statistics from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate Utah had the fifth highest suicide rate in the United States in 2015.

Editor’s note: For those in crisis or those helping someone else, the suicide prevention lifeline is available at all hours by calling 1-800-273-TALK.

This past week was National Suicide Prevention Week. Despite steady efforts in expanding public awareness and prevention campaigns, the rate of suicide in Utah continues at a disturbing pace. In each case, family and friends are often left wondering why a person turned to suicide, just as researchers continue to ask why Utah and neighboring Mountain West states similarly suffer from inordinately high rates of suicidal behavior.

There is a lot of speculation about contributing factors, but one area of expanding research in the field is particularly intriguing. The Utah Suicide Genetics Project, overseen by the University of Utah’s School of Medicine, recently entered into a contract with a Belgian pharmaceutical firm to explore the role genetic variations may play in suicidal tendencies. Researchers have previously produced mountains of data on correlations between suicidal behavior and factors like regional and geographical influences, access to firearms, pre-existing medical conditions and the nature of social and familial environments. But an answer to the question “why” remains elusive, leading many scientists to infer a person’s genetic makeup may also present a risk factor.

It’s at once distressing and perplexing that Utah has one of the highest suicide rates in the country. It is the leading cause of death among Utahns ages 10 to 17. There is evidence that living in a rural area or at high elevations may be a factor, especially given that rural areas in the Rocky Mountain region have higher rates of suicide than do states near sea level. The suicide rate in Utah is more than twice as high as in California, for example. States such as Wyoming, Alaska, New Mexico, Colorado, Idaho and Montana are perennially plagued by higher rates of suicide. There is also research suggesting a correlation between suicide and asthma. Access to firearms may also be a factor, since more than half of all suicides in Utah are committed using a gun.

But geneticists are interested in exploring whether there are embedded risks of suicidal behavior that a person may be born with. The new research will take advantage of the Utah Population Database, a unique stockpile of demographic, health and genealogical information compiled over decades with access to a large set of detailed family histories. The database has been instrumental in the development of genetic testing linked to various cancers and other diseases. If it can help expose underlying causes of suicidal behavior, it could lead to an extraordinary breakthrough in identifying and treating those who may be predisposed toward forms of depression or other influences that contribute to suicide.

In the meantime, the problem remains sadly common, with a person dying by his or her own hand every 16 hours. Science has and will grant us a better understanding of those things that lead to suicidal behavior, but it is also up to individuals to remain committed to recognizing such behavior among others and to intervene in a way that can forestall a tragic outcome.