Previous studies have shown that children who have lost a parent to suicide are more likely to attempt suicide than children whose parents died unintentionally.  One obvious explanation for this finding is that the parents who attempt or commit suicide are more likely to have a mood disorder or serious psychiatric illness and that their children share this genetic vulnerability and are therefore more likely to have a psychiatric illness which increases their risk for suicide.

But it turns out that the relationship is probably a bit more complicated.

In a recent prospective study conducted between1997 and 2012, a total of 701 offspring (aged 10 to 50 years with a mean age of?17.7 years) born to 334 clinically referred patients with mood disorders were evaluated.  The children were followed for a mean of 5.6 years.

Among the 701 offspring, 44 (6.3%) had made a suicide attempt prior to participating in this study, and 29 (4.1%) made an attempt during the study follow-up.   Parental suicide attempt was a strong predictor of offspring suicide attempt.  Children whose parents made a suicide attempt were nearly five times more likely to attempt suicide (odds ratio [OR],?4.79; 95% CI, 1.75-13.07) than children whose parents did not attempt suicide.   Even after controlling for offspring variables, including baseline history of mood disorder, the association remained strong (OR,?4.20; 95% CI, 1.37-12.86).

The authors concluded that parental history of a suicide attempt conveys a nearly 5-fold increased risk of suicide attempt in offspring at risk for mood disorder, even after adjusting for the familial transmission of mood disorder.


Ruta Nonacs, MD PhD


Brent DA, Melhem NM, Oquendo M, et al.  Familial Pathways to Early-Onset Suicide Attempt: A 5.6-Year Prospective Study.  JAMA Psychiatry. 2014 Dec 30.

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