Parental Alcohol Problems Are a Risk Factor for Attempted Suicide
It makes sense that problems in the home in childhood could affect a person’s emotional well-being as an adult. According to a study that appeared in the May 2014 edition of American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, if mom or dad had alcohol problems, then the children could face an 85 percent greater risk of trying to commit suicide.
The study also found that children of divorced parents faced a 14 percent higher risk for suicide versus children of intact families. However, curiously, divorce plus alcohol abuse among parents did not appear to increase the risk for suicide.
The study used information collected through the 2001/02 survey conducted by the Department of Health and Human Services. Survey results were based on face-to-face interviews with 43,093 American adults (over age 18 years). Findings broke down in the following ways:
- 13,753 people reported at least one event of significant depression (clinical depression) during their lifetime
- 1,073 reported having attempted suicide
- Among the 1,073 who had made an attempt, one quarter had parents who had split and close to one half (46 percent) reported that at least one parent had an issue with alcohol
- Among the 43,093 (full group) just 2.4 percent said they had ever tried to take their own life
- Among the 2.4 percent who had attempted suicide, 16 percent had divorced parents and 21 percent said that one or both parents had been alcohol abusers.
Researchers assessed depression based on responses to questions that were drawn from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health (DSM). Questions about sadness, duration of sadness and loss of enjoyment were part of the assessment. Similarly, the questions used to assess parental alcohol abuse were also based on criteria found in the DSM. In this way, researchers were able to make a reliable assessment both of depression and abuse when comparing them to risks for suicide.
The curiosity is that having the combination of divorced parents and alcohol abuse did not produce a heightened suicide risk. Separately, both issues were risk factors. The researchers in the study suggest that this may be because when parents divorce the tension level in the home often decreases. And if the child has witnessed one or both parents abuse alcohol, then a marital split may not be surprising nor entirely unwelcome.
The study reminds clinicians of the need to keep in mind the family of origin dynamics when assessing a client’s risk for suicide. When a full picture of depression and family history is gained, then prevention and intervention steps may be called for.