Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Does Suicide "Run" in Families?

The announced suicide last week of Dr. Nicholas Hughes, 47, the youngest son of writers Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, has generated the predictable speculation regarding genetics, family history and suicide.

The Times revealed on Monday that Dr Nicholas Hughes, 47, an expert in freshwater fish and the younger child of two of the 20th century’s greatest poets, had hanged himself at his home in Alaska.

Subsequent coverage around the world has homed in on the tragic resonance with his mother’s death in 1963. Sylvia Plath gassed herself by putting her head in the oven at their home in Camden, northwest London, and turning on the taps after first sealing the room where one-year-old Nicholas, and his sister Frieda, 2, were sleeping. The children’s formative years were further disrupted six years later when Assia Wevill, the woman for whom Ted Hughes had left their mother, killed herself and her four-year-old daughter.

As this CNN piece notes, "suicidal behavior may run in families."

A first-degree relative -- a parent, sibling or child -- of a person who has committed suicide is four to six times more likely to attempt or complete a suicide, said Dr. David Brent, psychiatrist at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

Studies on twins have shown that suicidal behavior is between 30 and 50 percent due to heritable factors, he said. Suicide victims' biological relatives who were adopted away also show an increased risk of suicide, he said.

Besides Hughes and Plath, famous examples of two or more close relatives committing suicide include Ernest Hemingway's family -- Hemingway's father, brother, sister and granddaughter, in addition to the famous novelist himself, killed themselves.

The poet John Berryman jumped off a Minneapolis bridge in 1972; his father had committed suicide when the poet was a child. More recently, the playwright Spalding Gray apparently killed himself in 2004; his mother had taken her own life many years earlier.

Do relatives of people who killed themselves imitate suicide? This is possible, but hard to prove or disprove, Brent said. In fact, there is more evidence of copycat suicides among people who did not know the victim well, but merely learned about him or her through the news.

But according to the London Times piece, it wasn't mimicry of his mother's suicide which drove him into depression and suicide; perhaps it was the loss of his father, the poet Ted Hughes, from cancer ten years ago, and the desire not to be associated with his infamous mother's demise.

However, according to some of Dr Hughes’s oldest friends, it was not until his father, then the Poet Laureate, died from cancer in 1998 that his son began to have serious mental health problems.

Unlike his sister Frieda, who has dealt with their harrowing family history partly by talking about it and scrutinising it in her writing, her poetry and her art, Dr Hughes had always actively avoided the subject.

“I never heard Nick tell anyone about his parentage,” Mr Saxton said. “He wasn’t embarrassed; it just wasn’t something he wanted to be a feature of him. That’s the irony. He spent his life trying to get away from all this, to find a place where he could be himself. Then the stupid bugger commits suicide and starts it all up again.”

Lost in all the media speculation of genetics, heredity, mimicry and twin studies, is the idea that suicide might be, perhaps, a learned behavior...a learned reactive behavior to life's calamities, disappointments and, most importantly, depression. If you read above the prevalence of suicide which surrounded him at such an early age, environmental factors such as learning have to be taken into account.

As the writer Andrew Solomon notes in the NYT's coverage of this, "Suicide is the end point of many depressions, but there are plenty of people who, though acutely depressed, do not become suicidal." The difference, as Sutherland pointed out in Differential Association 70 years ago, is learned. Throw in Durkheim's work on suicide (regulation, integration, etc.) and you get a better explanation.

Regardless, the tragedy of any suicide becomes amplified when the decedent is of some notoriety and connected to the subject already. That Dr. Hughes led a life away from said spotlight, in academia and research no less, equally sad.

No comments: