Parents’ Alcohol Abuse, Divorce Increases Suicide Risk in Offspring

It is widely known that people with a history of drug or alcohol abuse have increased chances of attempting suicide. However, researchers and public health officials know relatively little about how the drug and alcohol problems of a parent impact the adult suicide risks of his or her children. In a study published in May 2014 in the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, researchers from two U.S. institutions explored the connection between parental alcohol abuse and the odds that an adult child will make a suicide attempt. These researchers also looked at the potential combined impact of parental alcohol abuse and parental divorce.

Alcohol Abuse

Under terms established by the American Psychiatric Association (APA) in May 2013, diagnosable alcohol abuse is a subtype of a more comprehensive condition called alcohol use disorder, which also includes the formerly separate diagnosis of alcohol dependence or alcoholism. The APA created this combined definition because current findings from both researchers and doctors strongly indicate that the symptoms of non-addicted alcohol abuse and alcoholism frequently appear simultaneously and are hard to diagnose separately with any consistency. When alcohol abuse still existed as a standalone diagnosis, doctors needed to identify at least one out of four possible symptoms in any given individual. The alcohol use disorder diagnosis requires the presence of at least two out of 11 possible symptoms of alcohol abuse and/or alcoholism. Depending on the number of symptoms present, a doctor will label cases of the disorder as mild (two or three symptoms), moderate (four or five symptoms) or severe (six or more symptoms).

Suicide and Substance Abuse

Close to 40,000 people commit suicide in the U.S. every year; this figure makes suicide the nation’s 10th most common cause of death. Evidence compiled by the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration indicates that the abuse of alcohol or drugs ranks behind only mood disorders (bipolar disorders and depressive disorders) as an underlying factor in suicide. One potential reason for this link is the elevated prevalence of drug and alcohol intake in people who have serious mental health problems; in turn, people with these problems have increased chances of attempting to kill themselves. In many instances, social taboos regarding the discussion of both suicide and substance abuse/addiction may substantially increase the danger to affected individuals.

Impact on Adult Children

In the study published in the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, researchers from Columbia University and the New York State Psychiatric Institute used data from a large-scale federal project conducted in the early 2000s, called the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions, to explore the connection between alcohol abuse in one generation and increased risks for suicide in the adult children that form the following generation. All told, these researchers looked at information submitted by 43,093 adults. Out of this sample pool, 1,073 individuals had made a suicide attempt. The researchers found that 46 percent of the study participants who attempted to commit suicide had at least one parent who abused alcohol. This compares to a parental alcohol abuse rate of only 21 percent in the total sample of 43,093 participants. Based on these findings, the researchers concluded that the adult children of alcohol abusers try to kill themselves fully 85 percent more often than their age contemporaries whose parents did not abuse alcohol.

Does Divorce Make Things Worse?

When the researchers compared the divorce rates among the parents of adults who attempt suicide to the divorce rates among the parents of adults who don’t attempt suicide, they found that the parental divorce rate among the suicide attempters is about 9 percent higher. However, the researchers concluded that adult children with parents who abused alcohol and got a divorce are no more likely to attempt suicide than adult children with parents who only abused alcohol. Possible explanations for a lack of an additional impact from the combination of parental alcohol abuse and parental divorce include a reduced level of household volatility following a divorce and assumptions among children with alcohol-abusing parents that divorce is likely to occur.

The authors of the study believe that they are the first researchers to carry out such a large-scale examination of the role of parental alcohol abuse in the adult suicide rate of the following generation. They also believe they are the first researchers to examine how the combination of parental alcohol abuse and parental divorce affected any given adult child’s suicide risks.