Is there a genetic link to sucidal tendencies?

Monday October 21 2019


By Dr Vincent Karuhanga

Dr it is said that if one commits suicide, the curse will stay in the family so that even grandchildren might commit suicide. Then one is advised not to marry in that family! Is there a scientific basis for this? Steven Baraza

Dear Steven,
People have been advised not to marry in families where there has been a suicide because it has always been thought suicide in the family will carry a curse which will run in the family with children and grandchildren also risking committing suicide.

It is true that suicide may follow genetics though the problem is much more complex with genetics, family history and environment together being involved in the suicide risk.

Stress genes that relate to resilience, sensitivity to stress, and the ability to recover quickly from stress have been found to be related to suicidal behaviour. Stress can happen when one has lost his job, lost a deal or money, separated with a loved one and even failed exams. That said most people who committee suicide have a mental illness at the time of death. A mental illness might make a person hear and obey voices commanding him/her to commit suicide.

People who get alternating periods of high and low moods, may also find themselves in mood to commit suicide especially if they have a family history of suicide.

A traumatic experience including in childhood many years after the bad incident (trauma) can cause feelings of helplessness and hopelessness that can lead to suicide.


People suffering from chronic illnesses that are stigmatised (erstwhile HIV infection) or conditions that may cause severe pain may see no way out of their problems and end their lives. Sometimes the chronic illnesses may be in the family hence suicide happening following family lines.

Substance abuse has been Uganda’s one main cause of mental illness and mental illness may also cause one to resort to drug and substance abuse. Drug and substance abuse alone or the related mental illness may in those genetically prone to suicide, lead to one ending his/her life.

Drugs and alcohol can influence a person who is feeling suicidal, to act upon the urges to kill self yet this may not happen when one is sober.

Genes can play a role in making a person vulnerable to drug addiction, or in protecting a person against drug addiction. Alcoholism for example is often seen to run in families.