Can the outcome of a recent study on a type of bacteria in the saliva of a person with suicidal ideation help prevent suicides?
A study at the University of Florida has found that the bacteria in the saliva of college students who reported recent suicidal tendencies differed significantly from those found in the saliva of students who had not experienced recent suicidal ideation. Such students showed lower levels of Alloprevotella rava, a bacteria associated with positive brain health, in their samples. For the purpose of the study, recent suicidal ideation was considered as thoughts of suicide arising within the two weeks before the saliva sample was taken. The study was undertaken controlling the other known factors like diet and sleep etc which affect mental health. It was found that students with recent suicidal thoughts had higher levels of bacteria associated with periodontal disease and other inflammatory health conditions rather than of Alloprevotella rava. The study analysed saliva samples collected from nearly 500 undergraduate students. Those who reported recent suicidal ideation were referred to on-campus mental health services. In India too, a large number of youth commit suicide; study suggests that two lakh students died by suicide since 1995. In 2021 alone, 13,000 students took their lives.
It is a known fact that mental health is a serious issue on college campuses. A 2020 study by the US based Centre for Disease Control (CDC) found that up to a quarter of people between ages 18 to 24 had seriously thought about suicide within the previous month. The story is not much different in other parts of the world, including India. Although, various treatments and lifestyle changes help, there is a need to explore how some microbiomes affect mental health and could be harnessed to improve it. While at it, at is extremely important to ascertain whether the lower levels of the said bacteria result in suicidal tendencies or the lower levels are the result of suicidal ideation.
In future, a close observation of these bacteria might help predict tendencies and might lead to pro- or prebiotic treatments for those at risk.
As the scientists go ahead with their research, there’s an urgent need to widen the scope of this study to include people from other walks of life. The first category of professionals that comes to mind is the armed forces personnel. An article published in the New York Times in June 2012 included startling figures on spike in suicides among the active-duty US military personnel. As per Pentagon, the suicide rate (in 2012), eclipsed the number of troops dying in battle and on pace to set a record annual high since the start of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan more than a decade earlier. The suicide rate was nearly one per day in 2012. The sharp increase in suicides led Pentagon to establish a Defence Suicide Prevention Office. The commanders were reminded that those seeking counselling should not be stigmatised. Defence Secretary, Leon E Panetta emphasised that suicide prevention was a leadership responsibility. But veterans’ groups felt that the Pentagon had not done enough to moderate the tremendous stress under which combat troops were living, including coping with multiple deployments. Suicides among active-duty military personnel were “the tip of the iceberg.” A survey conducted among the 1,60,000 members of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America Group found that 37 percent knew someone who had committed suicide.
It is a similar story in case of the Indian Armed Forces. In a written reply to a question in the Rajya Sabha, in March 2021, the then Minister of State for Defence, Mr Shripad Naik had said that the Indian Armed Forces (Army, Air Force and Navy) had lost 787 personnel to suicides in the preceding seven years. In quite a few cases, the mentally stressed students and military personnel have gone on a shooting spree, killing innocent people, before committing suicide. The ever rising numbers of suicides point at the need to do more qualitatively to mitigate nay eliminate the circumstances nudging men to take that drastic step. Mechanical stress management efforts do not suffice. A study like the one conducted at the University of Florida with a wider scope (to look into the high rate of suicides in the Armed Forces) will go a long way in addressing the issue.