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Utah scientists identifying genes that may increase risk to suicide

SALT LAKE CITY — Scientists are discovering some of the mysteries behind suicide.

The latest research at University of Utah Health strengthens the family link to suicide.

They’re identifying genes that may increase risk.

Dr. Eric Monson’s research is personal.

“It drives me in this,” said Monson, a chief resident psychiatrist at University of Utah Health. “She was 15 there, in high school.”

He lost his sister to suicide.

“I still remember, very clearly, being called down to the principal’s office and my parents were in tears,” he said.

His work is a legacy of love.

“Just be able to ultimately prevent others from having to suffer the same thing,” said Monson.

Suicide risk is partially heritable, experts say.

“There are spots in the human genome that appear to confer some risk,” said Monson.

In a large study, Monson and his team at the U. hope to identify gene variants and other genetic mutations to help better understand who may be genetically at risk.

They believe changes in the way neural transmitters communicate, and a gene that helps regulate synapse activity in the brain, could elevate the risk.

Also, a genetic predisposition for post-traumatic stress disorder among people who have bipolar disorder may also increase the risk.

“Those who have these genetic predispositions likely have a poor response to stress or less able to tolerate it,” Monson said.

Suicide is 10 to 30 times higher for people with bipolar disorder, according to University of Utah Health.

“It’s suspected that, because of this reduced ability to tolerate stress or to recover from it, that they end up with longer-term illness,” he said.

Monson hopes the research leads to better screening, and that it becomes valuable for families like Amanda and Abbi McIntosh, who live in Helper.

“She was the last gift that he could give me,” said Amanda McIntosh, a suicide loss survivor.

Brian McIntosh — Amanda’s husband and the father of their 8-year-old daughter, Abbi — died from suicide seven years ago.

“She was definitely the brightest spot in his life,” said Amanda.

Brian’s mother also took her own life.

“Just by looking at those smiles, you wouldn’t have any idea,” Amanda said, referring to photos of her late husband and mother-in-law. “My husband was a great guy.”

Abbi McIntosh said, “I do feel the presence of his soul sometimes. When he is happy and proud of me, he gets in my dreams. He’s still in my heart.”

But, Monson said genes don’t have to determine destiny.

“It is inherently preventable. It’s a terrible outcome that steals so much opportunity, so much life from a person, but it doesn’t have to be that way,” he said.

They’re digging deeper in hopes of saving lives.

Therapists say the most important thing you can do to prevent suicide is to reach out to let your loved ones know they’re not alone.

Suicide Prevention Resources

If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts or exhibiting warning signs, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

Additional Crisis Hotlines

  • Utah County Crisis Line: 801-226-4433
  • Salt Lake County/UNI Crisis Line: 801-587-3000
  • Wasatch Mental Health Crisis Line: 801-373-7393
  • National Suicide Prevention Crisis Text Line: Text “HOME” to 741-741
  • Trevor Project Hotline for LGBTQ teens: 1-866-488-7386
  • University Of Utah Crisis Interventional Crisis Line: 801-587-300

Online resources

In an emergency

  • Call the police
  • Go to the emergency room

If you or someone you love needs help, call the Utah Crisis Line at the Huntsman Mental Health Institute. Or call the Utah Warm Line 833-SPEAKUT for anyone who may need a listening ear as they heal and recover from their own personal struggles.

For real-time emotional support and crisis prevention for students, parents and educators, chat with a licensed counselor for support from your smartphone, download the Safe UT Chat and Tip app.

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