The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

Thoughts of Suicide at Middle Age: The Long Shadow of Parental Divorce

Bryce J. Christensen and Nicole M. King

Public-health officials in various Western countries have worried a great deal about alarming suicide rates among adolescents and young adults, rates particularly high among those affected by family dissolution.  Tragically, it turns out that the distinctive vulnerability to suicide of those who have experienced family breakdown does not end with young adulthood. A study recently completed by an international team of British and Australian researchers finds that, compared to peers reared in intact families, 45-year-olds who experienced parental divorce in childhood are far more vulnerable to thoughts of suicide.

Affiliated with two British universities and one Australian university (Queen Mary University of London, University College London, and the Australian National University), these researchers shed light on the relationship between adversity in childhood and suicidal ideation in middle age. They begin their work aware of previous research identifying parental divorce as one of the forms of childhood adversity that predicts “suicidal ideation and completed suicide in adolescence and early adulthood.” The researchers consider this linkage in light of other studies which have established that childhood adversity may “result in altered hormonal responses to subsequent stressful life events . . . [with] long-term consequences across the lifecourse.” The researchers wonder if these long-term consequences include mid-life vulnerability to suicidal thoughts.

To answer that question, the researchers parse data collected in 2003 from 9,377 45-year-old men and women born in England, Scotland, or Wales in 1958. As anticipated, these data reveal clear linkages between childhood adversity and “suicidal ideation” at midlife. For those concerned about recent trends in family life, two forms of suicide-incubating child adversity cry out for particular scrutiny: parental divorce and paternal absence.

The researchers calculate that, compared to peers who grew up with a father in the home, 45-year-olds who grew up in fatherless homes were more than twice as likely to have felt life was “not worth living” in the week before being surveyed (Odds Ratio of 2.12 in a statistical model adjusting for gender, educational credentials, and social class).  

Using the same statistical model, the researchers similarly determine that—compared to peers from intact families—45-year-olds who experienced parental divorce were nearly twice as likely to have felt that life was worthless during the week before being surveyed (Odds Ratio of 1.82).  

The researchers stress that “suicidal ideation and completed suicide are not equivalent, . . . [with] less than 1 in 200 of those with suicidal ideation proceed[ing] to suicide.” Still, no one will marvel that the linkage between suicidal ideation and actual suicide proves sufficiently strong to make “suicidal ideation . . . an indicator of clinically significant risk . . .  of suicidal attempt.”

But what does this study tell us about how to prevent suicidal thoughts and the consequent actual suicides? Through statistical analysis, the researchers explain part of the linkage between childhood adversity and midlife suicidal thoughts as the consequence of the way such adversity incubates psychological problems during adolescence and adverse events (such as relationship breakups, unemployment, and excessive drinking) during adulthood. They consequently reason that public-health officials should develop “preventative interventions” that focus on such problems and events.  

But are such interventions the best way to deal with the child adversity taking the form of paternal absence or parental divorce? At best, such interventions would merely attenuate—not eliminate—the suicide-fostering effects of such absence, such divorce. Why not seek preventive interventions that truly prevent—why not seek interventions that put fathers back in the home and preserve parental marriages? To keep middle-aged men and women from sliding into suicidal depression, those are the interventions society truly needs.

(S.A Stansfeld et al., “Childhood Adversity and Midlife Suicidal Ideation,” Psychological Medicine 47.2 [2017]: 327-40.)