Men whose parents divorced before they were 18 are two to three times as likely to seriously consider taking their own lives as men whose parents were not divorced by that age, but daughters are not affected as badly, a new study says.
According to the research women whose parents divorced by age 18 did think about suicide more often than other women, but any suicidal thoughts they did have were explained by other traumatic experiences they had experienced, such as childhood abuse.
The study’s lead author, Dr. Esme Fuller-Thomson, a professor of medicine at the University of Toronto, noted that in most cases of divorce, at least until recently, mothers obtained custody of the children.
The study is called "Suicidal ideation among individuals whose parents have divorced: Findings from a representative Canadian community survey".
Dr Fuller-Thomson suggested that the lack of regular contact with a father may take a particular emotional and developmental toll on sons.
“The loss of a male role model for the boys may seriously impact their well-being,” she said. “Other research has indicated a positive father figure is very important for young men and boys, to develop their gender identity and learn ways to regulate their emotions and enhance their mental health.”
Dr. Fuller-Thomson stressed that serious thoughts of suicide affect only a minority. “I don’t want every divorced mom or dad to be in a panic about this,” she said. “Considering suicide is a rare event.”
She also suggested that boys may also be more likely to clam up and internalise their grief, whereas girls are more likely to “talk it out”.
Men, in general, are reluctant to reach out for help, said Dana Alonzo, an assistant professor at Columbia University School of Social Work, who has done similar studies. Men are also more prone to drug abuse, which is linked with suicidal feelings.
“They’re socialised to be strong, not to show weakness, not to show their feelings,” she said.
“If they’re living in a home just being raised by a mom, who encourages more expression of emotions and closeness, that sort of contradicts the message they’re getting from society as a whole, that ‘you should be able to handle this on your own.’ ”
Studies which have looked at the impact of divorce on suicidal tendencies before have yielded somewhat conflicting results.
One 2006 study found that men of divorced parents were 10 times as likely to attempt suicide compared with men whose parents were not divorced, and that women were not at elevated risk at all. Other studies have found an increased risk only for women.
This most recent study, published in the journal Psychiatric Research, tried to control for many of these factors. Data was taken from the 2005 Canadian Community Health Survey conducted by Statistics Canada and included a representative sample of 6,647 Canadian adults from the province of Saskatchewan.
Some 17.5 percent of women whose parents divorced before they were 18 said they had thought about suicide, about twice the 8.7 percent of women whose parents were not divorced.
When the researchers made adjustments for childhood stressors like abuse, there was no statistical difference between the rate of suicidal thoughts among women with divorced parents and those without.
By contrast, only 5.5 percent of men whose parents had not divorced by age 18 had considered suicide, and more than three times as many, or 17.5 percent, of men who came from divorced parents said they had considered suicide.
Even when other stressors were factored in, men whose parents had divorced were 2.3 times as likely to say they had seriously considered suicide.
“There’s a subportion of the population that is very vulnerable, and it’s worrisome,” Dr. Fuller-Thomson said.