Kids Of Divorce And Suicide: New Study Shows Link

01/24/2011 02:38 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Children with divorced parents are at an increased risk of suicidal thoughts, with boys especially vulnerable to the effects of marital breakups.

These new findings were revealed by the recent study, "Suicidal Ideation Among Individuals Whose Parents Have Divorced," conducted by Esme Fuller-Thompson, a professor at the University of Toronto.

Using a sample of 6.647 adults, 695 of whose parents had divorced before they were 18, Fuller-Thompson found that men from divorced households were three times as likely to have seriously considered suicide, while women had an 83 percent higher chance of having done the same.

Even when Fuller-Thomson adjusted for additional factors like parental abuse and addiction, which often accompany divorce, men still had twice the likelihood of having had suicidal thoughts. These findings suggest that divorce can have seriously adverse effects on children. We asked Esme Fuller-Thompson to help illuminate her study and its implications.

What was the most surprising finding of the study?

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.

Why might boys be more affected than girls?

Probably loss of the male role model, the father figure. The majority of children of divorce are raised by their moms. There are a portion of children who have very limited contact with their dad. The loss of a male role model is very significant for young men who are developing their gender identities. When you look back at the general literature, that seemed to be the one that popped up, but we don't know for sure.

Are there some differences between men and women generally in terms of suicidal thoughts?

Women have higher rates of suicidal ideation, while men are more likely to complete suicide. They tend to take steps such as shooting or hanging themselves. Women will attempt, but with drugs where you can catch them if you get it in time. In the general population, whose parents haven't divorced, among males 5.5 percent had seriously considered suicide, among females 8.7 percent. But when I looked at men who've experienced parental divorce, I had 17.5 percent. For females it went to 17.5 percent too, but compared to norms, women had a higher baseline to start with.

What's the link between having divorced parents and exposure to other negative factors?

Basically, 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 don't become suicidal, or are exposed to these stresses, though they have a higher chance of exposure.

What were some limitations of your study?

We don't have all the intense details I would like to have. Though the parents had to divorce before the kid was 18, though one would expect the timing of the divorce would affect their experience--we didn't have access to that information, or things like, how much contact the child had with the father afterward, or when exactly the suicidal thoughts occurred.

What can divorced parents take from this?

I don't want everyone to panic, every divorced mom to go into an apoplectic fit! The vast majority of divorced children have never been suicidal. It's just one factor among many. You want it to be replicated many times before you really know what's going on. It seems to indicate that health professionals should use this as one more screening tool, particularly among men, particularly if they're depressed. We need to think a little more creatively about how to build resilience in children as they're experiencing parental divorce.

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