Background: Psychiatric history, familial history of suicide attempts, and certain traumatic life events are important predictors of suicidal thoughts and behaviour. We examined the epidemiology and genetics of suicidality (i.e. reporting persistent suicidal thoughts or a plan or suicide attempt) in a large community-based sample of MZ and DZ twin pairs.
Method: Diagnostic telephone interviews were conducted in 1992-3 with twins from an Australian twin panel first surveyed in 1980-82 (N = 5995 respondents). Data were analysed using logistic regression models, taking into account twin pair zygosity and the history of suicidality in the respondent's co-twin.
Results: Lifetime prevalence of suicidal thoughts and attempts was remarkably constant across birth cohorts 1930-1964, and across gender. Major psychiatric correlates were history of major depression, panic disorder, social phobia in women, alcohol dependence and childhood conduct problems. Traumatic events involving assault (childhood sexual abuse, rape or physical assault) or status-loss (job loss, loss of property or home, divorce), and the personality trait neuroticism, were also significantly associated with suicide measures. Prevalence of serious suicide attempts varied as a function of religious affiliation. After controlling for these variables, however, history of suicide attempts or persistent thoughts in the respondent's co-twin remained a powerful predictor in MZ pairs (odds ratio = 3.9), but was not consistently predictive in DZ pairs. Overall, genetic factors accounted for approximately 45% of the variance in suicidal thoughts and behaviour (95% confidence interval 33-51%).
Conclusions: Risk of persistent suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts is determined by a complex interplay of psychiatric history, neuroticism, traumatic life experiences, genetic vulnerability specific for suicidal behaviour and sociocultural risk or protective factors.