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By Taryn Hillin
It's known that divorce can be traumatizing for everyone involved and is especially hard on kids. Now, new research suggests that the mental health effects of divorce may linger on well into adulthood, putting children of divorce at greater risk of suicide.
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 regarding the marital status and the alcohol patterns of their parents; they were then 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 told The Huffington Post. "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 recently 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.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
Taryn Hillin is a journalist who writes for the Huffington Post. This interview first appeared in HuffPost Divorce on 20 May 2014, and is republished here with her permission. Dana Alonzo is an associate professor at the Columbia School of Social Work and the founding director of the Suicide Prevention Research Program.