Suicide and Adult Children Who Experienced Divorce

Children of broken homes run an increased risk of suicidal thoughts, with boys particularly vulnerable to the effects of marital breakups, according to a study, “Suicidal Ideation Among Individuals Whose Parents Have Divorced.” Dr. Esme Fuller-Thompson, a professor at the University of Toronto, conducted the study of 6,647 adults, 695 of whose parents had divorced before they were 18.

She found that men from divorced households were three times as likely to have seriously considered suicide; women had an 83 percent higher chance of having done the same. These findings suggest that divorce can have seriously adverse effects on children.

Even with adjustments for factors like parental abuse and addiction, the data showed men still had twice the likelihood of having had suicidal thoughts.

Researchers determined that parental divorce increased the likelihood of suicide attempt by 14 percent.

Researchers determined that parental divorce increased the likelihood of suicide attempt by 14 percent.

“We’re certainly not the first [group] to find a link between parental divorce and suicidal ideation. We were looking at gender differentiation–whether adult sons and adult daughters have different [responses]. Both men and women are at increased risk of suicidal ideation–at some time in their life they’ve seriously considered suicide. When you look at it carefully, and we had a big sample, what we found was that the association between parental divorce and suicidal ideation disappeared when I took out women who had also experienced parental addictions and abuse. But for men, the relationship still existed. Men who had experienced a parental divorce that had not been exposed to those other childhood factors still were at greater risk for suicidal ideation,” she said.

The loss of the father figure is a likely reason men are more affected. The majority of children of divorce are raised by their mothers and may have limited contact with their father. The loss of a male role model is very significant for young men developing gender identities.

Women have higher rates of suicidal ideation; men are more likely to complete suicide. Men tend to take steps such as shooting or hanging themselves; women are more likely to attempt with drugs that allow for intervention. In the general population, among those whose parents have not divorced, among males 5.5 percent had seriously considered suicide, among females 8.7 percent; but for those who had experienced parental divorce it was 17.5 percent for both males and females (because more females had a higher baseline to start with).

Parental divorces are higher if there’s an addicted parent, and childhood physical abuse is higher in blended families. The majority of children of divorce doesn’t become suicidal, or are exposed to these stresses, though they have a higher chance of exposure.

Other new research echoes the Canada research, suggesting that the mental health effects of divorce may linger well into adulthood and put the children of divorce at greater risk of suicide, according to Dr. Dana Alonzo, an associate professor at Columbia University specializing in social work, conducted a study along with colleagues to determine whether or not having parents who divorced or having parents who abused alcohol would lead to an increased likelihood of a suicide attempt as an adult.

As part of the study, 49,093 participants were interviewed by the U.S. Bureau of Census and asked questions related to the marital status and the alcohol patterns of their parents, and then they were analyzed for depression. Of the participants, 13,753 were classified as depressed. That group was then asked additional questions such as, “During that time when your mood was at its lowest and you enjoyed or cared the least about things, did you attempt suicide? Of the overall sample, 2.4 percent reported lifetime suicide attempts, 16 percent experienced parental divorce, 21.3 percent reported a parental history of alcohol abuse, and 6 percent experienced both parental divorce and parental alcohol abuse.

After controlling for age, gender, race, marital status, education, lifetime depression, parental depression, income and lifetime alcohol use disorder, researchers determined that parental divorce increased the likelihood of suicide attempt by 14 percent. Parental alcohol abuse increased that likelihood by quite a bit more — 85 percent. Notably, combining the variables — divorce and alcohol abuse — did not further increase the risk.

“There are a few potential explanations for why experiencing childhood parental divorce may lead to an increased risk for suicide attempt,” Dr. Alonzo says. “For example, it has been suggested that negative childhood experiences that include perceptions of rejection or neglect, such as a parent leaving the household as a result of divorce, may lead to disrupted adult attachment, poor interpersonal relations and feeling unwanted as an adult.”

The study was sponsored by The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism and published in the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry.

Researchers note that since there have been over 30,000 suicides in the U.S. over the last two decades, this is valuable information when treating patients who are depressed.

“To have a greater impact on reducing the overall number of suicide attempts that occur yearly in the United States, prevention and treatment efforts need to target groups that have been accurately identified as a risk … professionals should recognize that children who experience parental divorce might be more vulnerable for suicide attempt than those from intact households,” the study states.

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