Study Reveals Possible New Ways To Predict Suicide In Women

Photographed by Rockie Nolan.
Women are three times more likely than men to attempt suicide. But because men die of suicide 3.5 times more often than women, we often assume suicide is only a men's problem. And that assumption has led to a serious lack of research on the potential gender-based differences in suicide risk. But now, new research attempts to uncover a little more about that risk in women.

The study, published online this week in Molecular Psychiatry, looked for biological markers that might be able to predict the risk for suicide in women specifically. To do so, the researchers first gave 51 women with known psychiatric conditions (e.g. schizophrenia) three mood questionnaires and genetic tests. Among those 51 participants, the researchers found 12 women whose questionnaires suggested they tended to go back and forth between no suicidal thoughts and high levels of suicidal thoughts. And those 12 showed different patterns of gene activation when they were at different levels of suicide risk.

Then, in a follow-up experiment, the researchers looked at blood tests for six women who had died by suicide. Here the researchers found several blood biomarkers that were similar to those already identified in men with higher risks for suicide, but some were unique to women. For instance, biomarkers involved in regulating our circadian rhythms and those targeted by lithium were altered in women only.

Finally, in a third experiment, the researchers tested out those biomarkers and two questionnaire apps in 33 women with psychiatric conditions. Rather than asking directly about suicidal thoughts or behavior, the apps assessed participants' overall moods, anxiety levels, social isolation, and physical health. Using the apps and the biomarkers, the researchers were able to predict which participants would have suicidal thoughts in the future with 82% accuracy — and which would end up requiring hospitalization with 78% accuracy.

"With this study," the authors write, "we begin to shed much needed light in the area of female suicidality, identify useful objective predictors, and help understand gender commonalities and differences."

Of course, there were a few limitations of the study. For instance, all of the participants in each experiment had already been diagnosed with a mental health issue. So it's not clear how well these markers would help us identify those at risk in the general population. Still, this is an area of women's mental health that hasn't received much research attention until recently.

The first step in figuring out someone's risk for suicide is usually asking him or her directly about any suicidal thoughts or behavior. But, partly because of deeply ingrained stigmas in our culture, people aren't always honest about these things. So a combination of biological markers and less overt methods of questioning may play an especially important role in assessing someone's (otherwise hidden) risk — and ultimately saving that person's life.
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