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Parental divorce linked to suicidal thoughts

January 19, 2011

TORONTO, ON – Adult chil­dren of divorce are more like­ly to have seri­ous­ly con­sid­ered sui­cide than their peers from intact fam­i­lies, sug­gests new research from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to.

In a paper pub­lished online this week in the jour­nal Psy­chi­a­try Research, inves­ti­ga­tors exam­ined gen­der spe­cif­ic dif­fer­ences among a sam­ple of 6,647 adults, of whom 695 had expe­ri­enced parental divorce before the age of 18. The study found that men from divorced fam­i­lies had more than three times the odds of sui­ci­dal ideation in com­par­i­son to men whose par­ents had not divorced. Adult daugh­ters of divorce had 83 per cent high­er odds of sui­ci­dal ideation than their female peers who had not expe­ri­enced parental divorce.

The link between divorce and sui­ci­dal ideation was par­tic­u­lar­ly strong in fam­i­lies where child­hood stres­sors like parental addic­tion, phys­i­cal abuse, and parental unem­ploy­ment also occurred. For women who had not expe­ri­enced these adverse child­hood expe­ri­ences, the asso­ci­a­tion between parental divorce and sui­ci­dal ideation was no longer sig­nif­i­cant. How­ev­er, even in the absence of these child­hood stres­sors, men who had expe­ri­enced parental divorce had twice the odds of hav­ing seri­ous­ly con­sid­ered sui­cide at some point in their life com­pared to men from intact fam­i­lies.

“This study sug­gests that the path­ways link­ing parental divorce to sui­ci­dal ideation are dif­fer­ent for men and women. The asso­ci­a­tion between parental divorce and sui­ci­dal thoughts in men was unex­pect­ed­ly strong, even when we adjust­ed for oth­er child­hood and adult stres­sors, socioe­co­nom­ic sta­tus, depres­sion and anxiety,”says lead author Esme Fuller-Thom­son, San­dra Rot­man Chair at U of T’s Fac­tor-Inwen­tash Fac­ul­ty of Social Work and Depart­ment of Fam­i­ly and Com­mu­ni­ty Med­i­cine. “Females whose par­ents had divorced were not par­tic­u­lar­ly vul­ner­a­ble to sui­ci­dal ideation if they were not also exposed to child­hood phys­i­cal abuse and/or parental addic­tions.”

Expla­na­tions for why men might be more neg­a­tive­ly impact­ed by parental divorce are var­ied. How­ev­er, researchers believe it could be due to the absence of close con­tact with a father which may occur post-divorce. Pre­vi­ous stud­ies have linked the loss of father-fig­ures with adverse devel­op­men­tal out­comes in boys. “It may be that the link between parental divorce and sui­ci­dal ideation in men is medi­at­ed through fac­tors we can­not con­trol for in our analy­ses such as child­hood pover­ty or parental depres­sion, both of which are more preva­lent in divorced families,”says U of T mas­ters grad­u­ate and study co-author Angela Dal­ton.

Fuller-Thom­son cau­tions that “these find­ings are not meant to pan­ic divorced par­ents. Our data in no way sug­gest that chil­dren of divorce are des­tined to become sui­ci­dal.”

Researcher’s note that the find­ings need to be con­firmed by oth­ers using prospec­tive data before any pub­lic health rec­om­men­da­tions can be made. How­ev­er, if con­firmed, they would have sig­nif­i­cant clin­i­cal impli­ca­tions for pro­fes­sion­als work­ing with fam­i­lies expe­ri­enc­ing parental divorce.

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For more infor­ma­tion, please con­tact:

Esme Fuller-Thom­son (Study lead author)
Pro­fes­sor & San­dra Rot­man Chair
Fac­tor-Inwen­tash Fac­ul­ty of Social Work
Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to
416 978‑3269

Joy­ann Cal­len­der
Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to
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