Which Early-Life Conditions Are Linked to Risk for Suicide?

Research explores how conditions in utero and at birth relate to suicide risk.

Posted Jun 13, 2019

Photographee/Adobe Stock
Source: Photographee/Adobe Stock

Suicide is devastating for those it touches. Family members and friends of those who die by suicide are frequently left wondering why their loved ones would take own lives.

The truth is, there is not one single cause of suicide. Research tells us suicide most often occurs when mental health conditions and stress come together to make someone feel a sense of hopelessness. It is estimated that 90 percent of people who die from suicide have a diagnosable mental health condition—most commonly depression—at the time of their death. People with serious health problems, prolonged stress or who have experienced childhood abuse or neglect are all more likely to die from suicide.

Researchers are looking more closely at the early stages of life to see if specific conditions that occur in-utero and birth are associated with increased risk of suicide later. This evidence is presented in a new systematic review in the journal Lancet Psychiatry.

The review combined data from 42 separate studies that looked at factors from pregnancy and infancy that were associated with suicide, suicide attempts and suicidal ideation (or thinking about suicide) later in life.

There were several circumstances that corresponded with an increased risk of suicide. Children born to teenage mothers were 80 percent more likely to die from suicide later in life compared to those born to older mothers. People who were the fourth-born or later in their families were at higher risk than first-borns. And people whose parents had low levels of education and those with low birth weights were more likely to die from suicide.

The review also included prenatal and early-life circumstances that did not signal an increased risk of suicide later in life, such as father’s age, being born early or by Caesarean section, and maternal smoking during pregnancy.

It’s important to note in analyses like this one that correlation is different than causation; in other words, just because two things are related does not mean one causes the other. For example, people who drink more alcohol are more likely to smoke. (That is a correlation.) But having a beer does not cause smoking.  However, the evidence does show that smoking causes lung cancer.

There is not enough evidence to make the case that any of the factors included in the review cause suicide. Identifying conditions during pregnancy and early life that are predictive of increased suicide risk, however, can help society and health care providers to offer programs to prevent suicide for those who are at a higher risk.