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Awarded New Investigator/Doctoral Dissertation Grant

A Twin Study of Suicidality & Self-Harm Among White and
African American Women

FOA Number: CE05-025 - Grants for Dissertation Awards
Project Period: 8/30/05-8/29/06
Application/Grant Number: 1-R49-CE000549-01
Principal Investigator: Christine Durrett, BA, MA
Dept. of Psychological Sciences
104 Psychology
200 South 7th Street
Columbia, MO 65211


Suicidality and self-harm pose a considerable public health burden, yet there is limited research on risk factors for these behaviors. This study examines the genetic and environmental risk factors leading to suicidal and self-harm behaviors in a representative community sample of female adolescents and young adults, and the racial differences in the relative strength of these risk factors.

Researchers will clarify the impact of individual-level risk factors, including genes, environment, and personality traits on suicidal and self-harm behavior. Investigators will use a behavior genetic twin study design. Data, which have already been collected, come from a twin registry of over 3500 females, ages 17 to 25 years (a demographic in which self-harm and suicidality are relatively common). Whether the prevalence of these behaviors differ between young African American and white women will first be determined. Structural equation modeling will also be used to explore the extent to which genes in shared and nonshared environments contribute to suicidal and self-harm behavior and whether those proportions vary by race. This modeling will determine whether common and/or unique risk factors contribute to suicidality and self-harm and will also test whether the personality traits of neuroticism and impulsivity account for some of the genetic influence on suicidality and self-harm. This study is the first to examine behavior genetic analysis of self-harm; the differential prevalence of self-harm by race; and the first to explore etiological similarities between self-harm and suicidal behavior. If similar risk factors contribute to both behaviors, prevention programs might easily be designed to target them simultaneously. This is also the first study to analyze the differential impact of risk factors on self-harm and suicidality by race. If the relative impact of these risk factors varies by race, prevention efforts may effectively target different classes of variables for different racial groups. No prior behavior genetic studies of suicidality have gone beyond estimating heritability to explore the mechanism of genetic transmission. While genes are an unlikely target for prevention programs, it may be possible to target intermediate phenotypes such as personality styles.