Are you carrying the suicide gene?
Are you carrying the suicide gene?

By Kelly Kaufhold

Ernest Hemingway spent most of his days lusting for life - big game hunting in Africa, carousing in Cuba and Key West, biting off adventure and washing it down with booze. The author is famous on college campuses for the literary chronicles he left behind before fatally shooting himself in 1961.

Ernest Hemingway
Ernest Hemingway
After that, the name Hemingway became synonymous with suicide. Ernest lost his father, brother and sister to the same final deadly expression of self. Now one researcher says there might be a physical reason - a genetic disposition, if you will -- some of the Hemingway's and others before and after them, took their own lives.

"Patients who committed suicide had 40 percent more seratonin-2 receptors," says Dr. David Bakish of the Royal Ottawa Hospital. "When we looked at what differentiated different classes of antidepressants, they all work on depressions," Dr. Bakish explains. "But only the seratonin system inhibitor reduced the suicidal idealation." What that means is modern psychiatry already has drugs in hand to treat that apparent genetic link to suicide - drugs like Prozac, Zolof, Effexor and more.

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Dr. Bakish's study was recently published in the American Journal of Medical Genetics, and while it is raising as many questions as it is answering, psychologists are quick to point out that the "suicide gene" theory isn't totally fail-safe. Some say not everyone who carries the gene will kill themselves; and not every person who goes down that dark road has the gene.

What the discovery does do is give researchers an important new tool to fight a growing trend of self-inflicted death, especially among college-age Americans. According to a 1991 study by researcher P.L. McCall, since 1946 the U.S. suicide rate for adults has stayed about the same - but for people between the ages of 15 and 24, it's gone up 250 percent.

"My roommate and I were watching TV. By the time we looked out the window we saw him there on the ground next to the chair. We were lucky. Other people in our building saw him fall."

MIT graduate

"Well, in '98 I guess it was, someone committed suicide at [the Massachusetts Institute of Technology] by jumping off a 20-odd story building next to my dorm," recalls MIT graduate Eric Plosky. "He first had to throw a chair out a window. We heard a noise, which we later realized was the chair hitting the ground. My roommate and I were watching TV. By the time we looked out the window we saw him there on the ground next to the chair. We were lucky. Other people in our building saw him fall."

For Caucasian college-age men in the U.S., suicide is the second leading cause of death behind any kind of accident. On average every day, 11 young men and one young woman take their own lives. But to Plosky, the fellow MIT student who took his own life is more than just a statistic.

"After that happened it was something that stuck in my mind. I walked over there after everything was cleaned up just to take a look," he shudders. "When I got back to my room I realized a piece of glass had stuck in my shoe so the incident stuck in my mind like that piece of glass."

Warning Signs of Depression
- Sudden changes in behavior
- Aggressive, angry or agitated
- Increased risk taking
- Changes in appetite or sleep patterns
- Low self-esteem
- Gives up valued possessions/settles unfinished business
- Withdraws from friends, family and activities
- Changes in dress or appearance
- Significant losses or family stress
Last year, it happened again. This time an MIT student killed himself off-campus, and it made Plosky and some classmates take a closer look at the issue. "Forty-seven suicides in the past 34 years," is what MIT junior Katie Jeffreys found in a report for the school paper, The Tech. "I found that the suicide rate since 1990 has been significantly lower than the last 30 years, about half of that in the 80's." MIT's suicide rate is actually a little lower than the national average of 13.1 per 100,000 people each year.

The deaths did spur some students to resurrect an issue that's been raised on campuses across the country - the pressure to perform. "[MIT] is a place where professors have high expectations of students, and students have high expectations of themselves," says Mike Ring, a junior studying physics and science. "I think the pressure level at MIT would probably be higher than normal. I'd be surprised to find it was lower than normal."

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology is not the only school feeling the effects of suicide. Ben Feinberg, a computer science junior at the University of Oregon says pressure can build anywhere. "Sometimes I think it's easier to get wrapped up in emotions, especially if you're under pressure in school, and to keep your GPA up," says Feinberg. "It might be a little easier to get wrapped up in those things that keep a cycle of depression going."

Feinberg, who experienced a bout with depression, says school officials can help by intervening. "I know when I was at [Portland Community College] that one of my instructors was concerned about me and referred me to a counselor," he recalls. "I thought it was a pretty neat deal that she kind of intervened before things got too out of hand."

"Sometimes I think it's easier to get wrapped up in emotions, especially if you're under pressure in school, and to keep your GPA up."

University of Oregon junior

MIT is also taking action. School counselors already sponsor an outreach program to let students know there is free help on campus, plus administrators changed the windows in one high-rise dorm. Students say those measures are noble, but they're not enough. . "If you want to combat suicide, you have to combat suicidal depression," says Plotsy. Ring agrees, "I don't think they've done enough to get people into counseling. The services are available, but they can do a better job promoting them, they can reach into dormitories themselves rather than rely on students to seek it."

Most U.S. colleges offer on-campus help - everything from ministry to therapy to psychiatric treatment. "Oftentimes if it's severe depression, neuro-vegetative signs, with loss of sleep or weight gain or weight loss, we recommend [students] work with a psychiatrist to get medication and work with a psychologist to do some of the talking therapies," elaborates Ron Miyaguchi, the senior staff psychologist at the University of Oregon. "We have them here."

While the availability of counselors, therapists and drugs continues to grow, so do the questions surrounding the issue of suicide, especially with the discovery of the suicide gene. Plotsky vehemently ponders: "The geneticist might say if somebody is going to kill themselves we can't stop it, why even try?"

Ernest Hemingway
Margaux Hemingway
That question is no more prevalent than in the case of the famed Hemingway's. Ernest's granddaughter Margeaux, who had a promising modeling career, was found dead in her home just one day before the 35th anniversary of his suicide. Her life, like his, his father's, sister's and brother's, was taken by her own hand. Argument for the suicide gene theory? Only time and more research will tell.