A study of 52 adolescents who committed suicide in Rhode Island has revealed that they were far more likely than their peers to have suffered certain problems during gestation or shortly after birth.
The problems most frequently linked to the suicide victims were prolonged difficulty in breathing at birth, having been born to mothers who suffered chronic diseases during pregnancy, and having received no prenatal care during the first 20 weeks of gestation.
Sixty percent of the suicide victims experienced one or more of these three situations, compared with less than 20 percent of the control group, which included children of the same sex born in the same hospital about the same time as the suicide victims, the study said.
Lee Salk, a psychologist at Cornell University Medical School who conducted the study and published it in The Lancet, a British medical journal, said he could only speculate as to how these factors at the beginning of life might play a role in suicide years later.
"It's all speculation," Salk said in an interview. "There may be direct physical causes. For example, low oxygen at birth can cause subtle kinds of brain damage. Or there may be psychological factors. For a woman not to seek prenatal care can mean it's an unwanted pregnancy. Her attitude may carry over and affect the way the child is raised."
"All we can say is that we looked at 46 different risk factors a standard list of medical problems that can affect mothers and newborns and these were the ones that showed a big difference," Salk said.
He said he was prompted to make the study by the observation that the teen-age suicide rate has tripled over the last 30 years, a period in which steadily more newborns with "respiratory distress" were being resuscitated. Salk said he began to wonder whether this has meant saving the lives of babies who suffered some brain damage.
Though the damage may not affect intellectual behavior significantly, Salk suggested it might have compromised the mind's abilities to cope with teen-age stress.