A Yale study conducted in collaboration with the National Center for PTSD found that social support is key to reducing veterans’ suicide risks. 

In recent years, scientists have identified numerous genes associated with suicidal thoughts and behaviors. From this data, polygenic risk scores can be calculated, which estimate an individual’s likelihood for suicidal thoughts and behaviors. For a team of researchers at Yale, a crucial question emerged: can a combination of psychological and social — psychosocial — factors buffer against a genetic risk for suicide? 

In a paper published on Nov. 2 in Molecular Psychiatry, researchers found that among veterans with higher suicide polygenic risk scores, those with higher optimism and social support had a significantly lower likelihood of developing chronic suicidal thoughts. The study was led by Peter Na — a staff psychiatrist at the VA Connecticut Health System and clinical instructor of psychiatry at the School of Medicine — and Robert Pietrzak — director of the National Center for PTSD.

“These findings show that the interplay between biological and environmental factors are critical to understanding the complexity of suicidal behavior,” Pietrzak wrote in an email. “They are also the first [findings], to our knowledge, to identify psychosocial factors that may help mitigate risk for suicide.”

The study found that psychosocial factors are effective because they impact pathways involved in brain development, GABA signaling and synaptic organization –– the same pathways impacted by genes associated with suicidal thoughts. Daniel Levey, assistant professor of psychiatry at the School of Medicine and a contributor to the study, likens this push and pull –– between positive psychosocial factors and genetic disposition to suicidal thoughts –– to a battle for control of these biological pathways.

According to Na, the current suicide statistic for veterans is the highest recorded rate in U.S. history, increasing by 30 percent between 2010 and 2018. In fact, Na notes that the veteran suicide rate is nearly double that of the general population. 

“That might have something to do with veterans tending to be more likely to be men where there is a higher risk of death by suicide, and women tend to report [suicide] ideation more,” Levey said.  

Levey said that because men tend to be less emotionally vulnerable and open to seeking support, there is more of a reason to implement programs providing social support. Na emphasized that key programs are already being instated.

“A prime example is a Veterans Affairs tele-support program called Compassionate Contact Corps,” Na wrote in an email to the News. “Through this program, veterans who feel lonely, or socially isolated are ‘prescribed’ to talk regularly with trained volunteers via phone or video calls. The referrals are made by clinicians.”

According to Na, even daily five-minute interventions spanning two weeks in which participants are asked to write about themselves in their best possible future, known by clinicians as “The Best Possible Self Intervention,” can significantly enhance optimism. Other examples include self-compassion training, cognitive-behavioral therapy, mindfulness practices and meditation.

However, the study comes with limitations based on the diversity of the data set. The team used data from 1326 European-American veterans, limiting the applicability to this demographic, as noted in the study. In the future, Na and Pietrzak are interested in using more diverse data sets to understand how racial, cultural and gender differences might impact the effectiveness of certain psychosocial interventions.

Pietrzak believes such an endeavor is possible. With the relatively inexpensive cost of a single saliva or blood sample, which costs less than $100 per person, clinicians could potentially calculate the polygenic risk scores of individual veterans on a larger scale. From this data, a personalized plan could be developed. Veterans would be connected to existing programs designed to bolster emotional well-being and personal strength.

If you or loved ones are experiencing suicidal thoughts, resources available include calling the National Suicide Prevention Line at 1-800-273-8255.

The National Center for PTSD was founded in 1989.