The recent suicide of Robin Williams has left people all over the world in a state of shock. As is so often the case with suicides, the people who knew him best are left wondering how someone who seemed so full of life, so buoyant, and so happy could have become so hopeless and depressed that they felt compelled to take their own life. I myself, who looked up to the man and am so often asked if I’m related, was completely buffaloed by the news.
So when I came across this story, I decided to skip it past the queue and write about it straight away. As I’m sure many people are aware, mental illness has long been a question of nurture vs. nature. Whereas some believe that environmental factors are the chief cause, others have been looking for genetic indicators that could show that certain people are predisposed to mental illness.
However, some recent findings from the John Hopkins School of Medicine may have settled the debate. Led by Dr. Zachary Kaminsky, a John Hopkins research team came to the conclusion that suicidal tendencies can largely be traced to a genetic mutation in those people who are more likely to commit suicide. What’s more, this mutation can be detected with a simple blood test.
Based on the analysis of brain samples taken from the cadavers of both mentally ill and healthy people, they found that in cases where the people had died by suicide, there was a lower-than-normal concentration of a gene known as SKA2. This gene is expressed in the prefrontal cortex of the brain – an area involved in inhibiting negative thoughts and controlling impulsive behavior.
This gene plays a part in the brain’s handling of stress hormones. If it isn’t functioning properly or lacking, stressful situations that would ordinarily be bearable can drive a person to contemplate or even attempt killing themselves. It was also found that the mutation not only reduced the levels of the gene, but also added chemicals called methyl groups to the SKA2 that was present.
This finding was backed up by an analysis of blood samples taken from 325 living test subjects. Based on the levels of methyl groups in the SKA2 genes within those samples, the scientists could predict with 80 percent overall accuracy which of the participants had contemplated or attempted suicide. The accuracy went up to 90 percent for test subjects who posed a severe suicide risk, and 96 percent for the youngest group of participants.
If the data is confirmed by larger studies, it is hoped that such testing could ultimately be used to predict how likely mentally-ill people are to commit suicide, and to then tailor their treatment accordingly. It could also be utilized to screen patients before administering medication that can cause suicidal thoughts, or as a reference for monitoring people who have recently returned from stressful military service.
This is good news for people who have a family history of mental illness, or know somebody who has begun struggling with it, or has been for their entire life. As mental health experts will attest, knowledge is the best means of prevention, so that the illness can be predicted and preempted, and its onset properly addressed. What’s more, knowing that a genetic mutation is involved will go a long way toward developing genetic treatments that can correct the mutation.
It is always a tragic thing when a person dies before their time, but it is especially so when they take their own life. In addition to the grief, there are also the terrible, burdensome questions of why they did it, and what could have been done to save them. One can only hope that developments like these will lead to an age where mental illness is no longer such a terrible, unpredictable thing.
Rest in peace, Robin Williams. Wish I could have been there for you, buddy. And know that you will be sorely missed!