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New Study Suggests Genetic Link for Suicide in Families

Aired August 4, 2003 - 20:53   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: Twenty-five years, one family, five suicides is the haunting story of Alan Boyd (ph). His mother, his father, two brothers and a sister -- all of them committed suicide. And even though he says he hopes one day to start a family of his own, Boyd lives every day with the fear he may meet the same fate. It is a possibility that psychiatrists are now seriously investigating, and a new study this week suggests the trait behind high suicide rates in families is not simply mental illness.
I'm joined now by the lead author of that study, which is in this month's edition of "The American Journal of Psychiatry," Dr. David Brent. Thanks for being with us tonight, sir.

DR. DAVID BRENT, PSYCHIATRIST: Sure. Good to see you.

ZAHN: When you hear about Mr. Boyd's family life, it's heart- breaking. And I guess people might be surprised to learn there that there could be a scientific link between all of these suicides. What is it?

BRENT: Well, obviously, I can't comment on his particular family. But many years ago, I encountered a family very similar, you know, with a very large number of members who had committed suicide, and that's when I first began to wonder if there could be something genetic that's going on. And in the study that we've done, what we showed is that if a parent has attempted suicide, that the child is about six times more likely to make a suicide attempt.

ZAHN: Wow. And why is that?

BRENT: Well, there are probably a number of factors, but what it looks like is that there are two sets of liabilities that are passed to the kids. The parents pass some psychiatric disorder to the kids, most often depression or substance abuse. And it also appears that they pass a tendency to impulsive aggression. And it's the combination of the two that puts you at highest risk for suicidal behavior.

ZAHN: So what is the most accurate advice you can give to a family who has a history of suicide about the things they should be looking for, things they should be attentive to?

BRENT: Well, I think first thing that's important to realize is that genetics is not destiny, so that even though the risk is increased, the odds are still very much in somebody's favor that they're not going to commit or even attempt suicide. But you can't -- suicidal behavior doesn't occur in a vacuum. It usually occurs in someone who has a psychiatric disorder, like depression, who has thoughts of suicide, who's hopeless. And so the most important thing, if you have this kind of family history, is to self-identify. If you are experiencing some kind of psychiatric difficulties, it's very important to get treatment.

ZAHN: I know a lot of families who've had these unfortunate situations in their own families will be learning a lot from this study. And Dr. Brent, thank you for coming on to share a bit of it with us tonight.

BRENT: OK. You bet.

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