Jordan Allred, Deseret News
University of Utah Health researchers have identified some genetic factors that may increase a person's risk of dying by suicide, according to the results of a newly published study.

New research revealing a potential genetic link to suicidal behavior is an interesting advance in understanding the reasons why people choose to take their own lives and may eventually have value in the area of prevention. Efforts like this are necessary in trying to unravel the mystery of high suicide rates in Utah and in other areas, and why rates among some age groups continue to rise.

A study by University of Utah health researchers identified four gene variants associated with suicide risk, adding to growing evidence that some genetic predisposition may join other factors in leading a person toward suicide. The findings are based on an analysis of 43 extended families in which high suicide risk was observed over several generations. The research does not suggest that genetic makeup is a primary link to suicidal behavior, but it offers an indication that it may be an aggravating factor in conjunction with social, economic and environmental influences.

As we have seen rates of suicide in Utah jump dramatically in recent years, there is growing concentration on identifying potential causes and methods of effective intervention. While experts know much about what can lead to suicidal behavior, much more remains a mystery. Suicide rates tend to be higher in areas of higher elevation, for reasons that remain scientifically uncertain. While severe depression can lead to suicide, researchers also know of many cases in which a person with no history of clinical depression has taken his or her life.

It’s clear social pressures that disrupt a person’s psychological security are key to potentially destructive behavior. Kids who have been bullied and who struggle with sexual identity issues face higher risks. The rate of suicide among teenagers in Utah has risen four-fold since 2007, now more than doubling the national rate, according to a study released last fall by the Utah Foundation.

That same study referenced the effectiveness of prevention efforts, suggesting that a lack of data makes it hard to assess whether awareness and prevention campaigns are having an impact in the face of rising rates. Anecdotally, there is a wealth of evidence that prevention hotlines have paved the way to successful intervention. More than 20 suicide-related hotlines in operation in Utah, including the SafeUT program, link to live counselors. In that vein, it’s good to see national efforts to coordinate and expand hotline programs. Chief among them is Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch’s campaign to create a three-digit number to access a national suicide help line.

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The battle against suicide is waged on two fronts. It’s important to have more and better information on the complex social, behavioral and perhaps genetic components that play into an individual’s risk. Second, those at risk must have quick access to effective help. With the rate of teenage suicide on an upward trajectory, it’s important schools are staffed with the proper number of trained mental health counselors.

Despite the many unknowns, it’s clear Utahns need a strong combination of research, resources and compassion to ultimately reverse this trend.

If you need help, there are resources: The 24/7 National Suicide Prevention Lifeline may be reached at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). In Utah, you can access help through the SafeUT app or by calling its crisis line, 801-587-3000.