Early-life Conditions Identify People at Risk for Suicide

Suicide is devastating for those it touches. Family members and friends of those who die by suicide are frequently left wondering why their loved ones would take own lives.

The truth is, there is not one single cause of suicide. Research tells us suicide most often occurs when mental health conditions and stress come together to make someone feel a sense of hopelessness. Ninety percent of people who die from suicide have a diagnoseable mental health condition – most commonly depression – at the time of their death. People with serious health problems, prolonged stress or an experience of childhood abuse or neglect are all more likely to commit suicide.

Researchers are looking more closely at the early stages of life to see if specific conditions that occur in utero and birth increase a person’s risk of committing suicide later. This evidence is presented in a new systematic review in the journal Lancet Psychiatry.

The review combined data from 42 separate studies that looked factors from pregnancy and infancy that were associated with suicide, suicide attempts and suicidal ideation (or thinking about suicide) later in life.

In total, there were four circumstances that led to an increased risk for thinking about or attempting suicide.  Children born to teenage mothers were 80 percent more likely to commit suicide later in life compared to those born to older mothers.

People who are the fourth-born or later in their families significantly more likely to commit suicide than first-borns.

And people whose parents had low levels of education and those with low birth weights were approximately 30 percent more likely to commit suicide.

The review also included prenatal and early-life circumstances that did not increase the risk of suicide later in life including father’s age, being born early or by Caesarean section and maternal smoking during pregnancy.

It’s important to note in analyses like this one that correlation is different than causation; in other words, just because two things are related does not mean one causes the other. For example, people who drink more alcohol are more likely to smoke. (That is correlation.) But having a beer does not cause smoking.  However, the evidence does show smoking causes lung cancer.

There is not enough evidence to make the case that any of the factors included in the review cause suicide. But identifying conditions during pregnancy and early life that lead to suicide can help health care providers to offer programs to prevent suicide for those who are at a higher risk.

“More than treatment of suicidal patients, I think this would call for early-life preventive intervention to reduce vulnerability to suicide later in life,” study author Massimiliano Orri told MD Magazine. “However, an important step before our findings can inform prevention is to understand the mechanisms linking early-life factors and suicide risk.”

The take-home message: Understanding the factors that increase a person’s risk of attempting or thinking about suicide can help society and public health officials to offer prevention programs early on.

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