Machine Learning Assessment of Early Life Factors Predicting Suicide Attempt in Adolescence or Young Adulthood

JAMA Netw Open. 2021 Mar 1;4(3):e211450. doi: 10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2021.1450.


Importance: Although longitudinal studies have reported associations between early life factors (ie, in-utero/perinatal/infancy) and long-term suicidal behavior, they have concentrated on 1 or few selected factors, and established associations, but did not investigate if early-life factors predict suicidal behavior.

Objective: To identify and evaluate the ability of early-life factors to predict suicide attempt in adolescents and young adults from the general population.

Design, setting, and participants: This prognostic study used data from the Québec Longitudinal Study of Child Development, a population-based longitudinal study from Québec province, Canada. Participants were followed-up from birth to age 20 years. Random forest classification algorithms were developed to predict suicide attempt. To avoid overfitting, prediction performance indices were assessed across 50 randomly split subsamples, and then the mean was calculated. Data were analyzed from November 2019 to June 2020.

Exposures: Factors considered in the analysis included 150 variables, spanning virtually all early life domains, including pregnancy and birth information; child, parents, and neighborhood characteristics; parenting and family functioning; parents' mental health; and child temperament, as assessed by mothers, fathers, and hospital birth records.

Main outcomes and measures: The main outcome was self-reported suicide attempt by age 20 years.

Results: Among 1623 included youths aged 20 years, 845 (52.1%) were female and 778 (47.9%) were male. Models show moderate prediction performance. The areas under the curve for the prediction of suicide attempt were 0.72 (95% CI, 0.71-0.73) for females and 0.62 (95% CI, 0.60-0.62) for males. The models showed low sensitivity (females, 0.50; males, 0.32), moderate positive predictive values (females, 0.60; males, 0.62), and good specificity (females, 0.76; males, 0.82) and negative predicted values (females, 0.75; males, 0.71). The most important factors contributing to the prediction included socioeconomic and demographic characteristics of the family (eg, mother and father education and age, socioeconomic status, neighborhood characteristics), parents' psychological state (specifically parents' antisocial behaviors) and parenting practices. Birth-related variables also contributed to the prediction of suicidal behavior (eg, prematurity). Sex differences were also identified, with family-related socioeconomic and demographic characteristics being the top factors for females and parents' antisocial behavior being the top factor for males.

Conclusions and relevance: These findings suggest that early life factors contributed modestly to the prediction of suicidal behavior in adolescence and young adulthood. Although these factors may inform the understanding of the etiological processes of suicide, their utility in the long-term prediction of suicide attempt was limited.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Age Factors
  • Child
  • Child, Preschool
  • Female
  • Follow-Up Studies
  • Forecasting
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Longitudinal Studies
  • Machine Learning*
  • Male
  • Suicide, Attempted / statistics & numerical data*
  • Young Adult