IOWA CITY, Iowa – (CBS2/Fox28) — “Suicide is truly a public health crisis,” says University of Iowa associate professor Virginia Willour.
Inside her lab, she and other scientists are taking a hard look at why some people don’t just think about taking their own lives, but actually do it.
They’re hoping to find the answer inside their DNA.
“It’s estimated that the heritability of suicidal behavior is 30-50%, so that means there’s a significant genetic contribution,” Willour explains.
The researchers at the university have been tackling this topic for several years; thanks to a $1.5 million grant, they’re now able to look at 30,000 people diagnosed with bipolar disorder. The team hopes to be able to create detection and prevention methods in the future.
“Identify individuals at high risk — the earlier the better, right? And also to identify new drug targets,” Willour says.
Outside the lab, those who work in crisis services are also eager to see results.
“This is the first time I’m hearing this, to be honest with you,” says Drew Martel. He’s the director of crisis services for Foundation 2. Martel says he’s heard theories that genetics play a huge role in mental health and even suicide, but he’s not seen anything as in-depth as this new research.
“Suicide is incredibly complicated and for as much research that goes into it, it’s still not entirely understood,” he says.
Martel says it’ll likely be a long time before research turns to tangible help for suicidal individuals.
And even then, he and Willour agree there are still multiple factors that play into suicidal actions.
“As is with mental health in general, you have a genetic predisposition, we know that your environment that goes into that, life stresses play a role in that, and those things converge,” Martel explains. “Suicide seems to be a convergence of things.”
He says anyone feeling suicidal or dealing with mental health issues should reach out for help. Willour says even if they figure out a genetic variance that links to suicide, it won’t be the end-all-be-all that saves lives.
“This is not an on/off switch,” she says. “I would tell people to know there are options available and to take it very seriously.”