It is estimated that each year, at least 1 million people in the US intentionally self-harm, with some intending to take their own lives. Now, a new study published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry finds that a suicide attempt by a parent with a mood disorder may significantly increase the risk of offspring attempting suicide.

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Offspring of parents with a mood disorder who have attempted suicide were found to be much more likely to attempt suicide themselves.

The research team, including Dr. David A. Brent of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, PA, notes that previous studies have indicated that suicide risk may run in families.

A 2012 study reported by Medical News Today, for example, found that young people are more likely to attempt suicide within 2 years of a parent attempting suicide.

However, Dr. Brent and colleagues say few studies have analyzed what leads to suicidal behavior running in families, and this was something the researchers wanted to address with their study.

To reach their findings, the team analyzed 334 parents with mood disorders and their 701 children who were aged 10-50 years. Of the parents, 191 (57.2%) had attempted suicide. Their children were followed for an average of 5.6 years.

At study baseline, the children were required to undergo structured psychiatric assessments and self-reported questionnaires, allowing the researchers to establish the presence of any mental health disorders and suicidal behavior.

The team found that 44 (6.3%) of the 701 children had attempted suicide prior to the study, while 29 (4.1%) made a suicide attempt during study follow-up. Of these, 19 (65.5%) made a first-time suicide attempt.

Even after accounting for previous offspring suicide attempts and familial transmission of a mood disorder, the researchers found that children of parents who made a suicide attempt were almost five times more likely to attempt suicide themselves.

The researchers note, however, that as participants aged, the incidence of depression among offspring increased from 29.6% in the first 1-2 years to 48.2% by study end. This may explain the increased risk of attempted suicide among offspring whose parents made a suicide attempt.

The team adds:

In fact, impulsive aggression played an important role in increasing the likelihood of an offspring suicide attempt, but it did so by increasing the risk of the subsequent development of a mood disorder, which in turn increased the risk of an attempt.

The transition from impulsive aggression to mood disorder may be particularly salient to understanding recurrent suicidal behavior because this pathway from offspring suicide attempt at baseline to an attempt at follow-up was mediated by offspring impulsive aggression and mood disorder.”

Based on their findings, Dr. Brent and colleagues recommend interventions that target impulsive aggression in order to prevent children at high familial risk from attempting suicide.

“Future work should focus on the deconstruction of suicidal behavior into intermediate biobehavioral phenotypes to further elucidate mechanisms by which suicidal behavior is transmitted from parent to child,” they add.

In November, MNT reported on a study led by researchers from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, MD, which found that short-term counseling may reduce the risk of repeat suicide attempts.