Familial Factors in Suicidal Behaviors Essay

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Familial factors related to suicide can be categorized as environmental, heritable (genetic), and interactions of the two. Many familial risk and protective factors in suicide are interrelated, and it is difficult to determine whether a trait is directly associated with suicide and what proportion of that trait is heritable. Research in this area is ongoing, and knowledge is evolving rapidly.

Environmental Exposures

Exposures occurring in the family environment during an individual’s developmental years have the potential to influence suicidal behaviors in many ways, including the age of onset, number of attempts, and attempt severity. Moreover, adverse childhood exposures increase risk of suicide attempts in adulthood as well as in adolescence. The most studied familial exposures concern family relationships, especially those with parents and parent substitutes. Childrearing styles that are close, nurturing, loving, supportive, and attentive are protective with respect to suicidal behaviors. Conversely, experiencing any type of child maltreatment— neglect, physical abuse, or sexual abuse—increases an individual’s risk of suicidal behavior. Further, severity, duration, and number of types of maltreatment each correlate with increasing suicidal risk.

Parental absence—whether through death, divorce, abandonment, out-of-home-placement, or other circumstance—is a prominent suicide risk factor, particularly among adolescents. Related risk factors include parental mental illness, including alcoholism and other substance abuse, which can make parents neglectful, unpredictable, or violent. Finally, children who witness intimate partner violence between their parents are at increased risk of suicidal behaviors, even if they are never themselves assaulted.

Heritable Factors in Suicidal Behavior

Research has demonstrated that a substantial proportion of suicidal behavior is heritable. However, it is difficult to determine whether risk for suicidal behavior is itself heritable or if risk factors associated with suicide account for the family transmission of suicidal behavior. Efforts to identify a particular gene or group of genes that contributes to suicide have focused primarily on neurotransmitters such as serotonin and norepinephrine; so far, no genotype has been directly linked with suicidal behavior.

Many risk factors associated with suicide are partly heritable. For example, mental illnesses such as bipolar and unipolar depression, schizophrenia, and alcoholism are well-known suicide risk factors. All are heritable to some extent. Other factors related to suicide and influenced by heredity include aggression, impulsivity, serotonin availability, intellect, and a tendency toward subclinical levels of substance abuse.

Present evidence indicates that a tendency toward suicidal behavior is influenced by multiple genetic and environmental factors. Many genetic factors are not expressed unless a certain environment is present. An example of this type of interaction between genes and environment in suicidal behavior involves how a person responds to stress. For some people, their response to stress (which is partially heritable) is associated with a significantly greater likelihood of depression and suicidality than others. In this case, the depression and suicidality are said to be the result of a genotype-by-environment interaction.


  1. Balazic, J., & Marusic A. (2005). The completed suicide as interplay of genes and environment. Forensic Science International, 147, S1–S3.
  2. Dube, S. R., Anda, R. F., Felitti, V. J., Chapman, D. P., Williamson, D. F., & Giles, W. H. (2001). Childhood abuse, household dysfunction, and the risk of attempted suicide throughout the life span: Findings from the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study. Journal of the American Medical Association, 286, 3089–3096.

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