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Suicidal Thoughts High in Adult Children of Divorce


Among adult children of divorce, the chances of these men and women having suicidal thoughts are significantly greater than among adult children whose families remained intact. The association between suicidal thoughts and parental divorce was especially strong in men, according to a University of Toronto study.

Men and women respond differently to parents’ divorce

Several previous studies have looked at suicide and suicidal thoughts (suicidal ideation) among adult children of parental divorce. At Columbia University’s Graduate School of Social Work, researchers used a sample of 4,895 adult children whose parents had divorced during childhood and found that females who lived with their fathers were significantly more likely to report suicide attempts than females who lived with their mothers.

In a subsequent study from the same research team, the investigators added the factor of depression and found that even after controlling for offspring depression, female adult offspring of parental divorce are more likely to attempt suicide than are male offspring.

At the University of Toronto, an investigative team evaluated gender specific differences among a group of 6,647 adults, 695 of whom had experienced parental divorce before age 18. When compared with men whose parents had not divorced, men whose background included parental divorce were more than three times likely to have suicidal thoughts.

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Among females, odds of suicidal ideation were 83 percent higher among those whose parents had divorced than among those whose families had remained intact. Researchers also found that children who grew up in a family where there was physical abuse, parental addiction, or parental unemployment were more likely to have suicidal ideation than those who did not.

When these childhood stressors were not present for females, the association between parental divorce and suicidal thoughts was not significant. Male adult children of divorce, however, were still twice as likely to have considered suicide when compared with men from intact families even when these stressors were not present in their childhood.

The study’s authors offered possible explanations as to why male adult children of divorce may experience a more negative impact than their female counterparts. One is a lack of a close father-son relationship after the divorce. Angela Dalton, co-author of the study and a masters graduate, also noted that “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.”

Lead author Esme Fuller-Thomson, Sandra Rotman Chair of the University’s Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work and Department of Family and Community Medicine, warned 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.” Further research is necessary before public health recommendations can be developed.

Lizardi D et al. Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease 2009 Dec; 197(12): 899-904
Lizardi D et al. Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease 2010 Sep; 198(9): 687-90
University of Toronto