Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Suicide Rate Greater Among Divorced Men, Research Finds

(March 10) -- American men are four times more likely than women to take their own lives. It's a troubling phenomenon, rooted in such factors as genetics, upbringing and even career choice. But a growing body of research suggests that divorce is one of the major culprits in suicides among adult males. 

Women, however, seem immune to the stress and sadness that can be wrought by the end of a marriage.

Dr. Justin Denney, a sociologist at the University of Colorado, is studying the relationship between family structure and suicide rates. He's using national data collected on over 1 million people, and their households, to pinpoint how family dynamics can precipitate, or protect against, suicide mortality.

Denney's research is the first to examine so many cases at a national level, but experts have been aware of the link between divorce and men's suicide risk for decades. According to a compilation of research published by JRank and confirmed by Denney, suicide rates are higher among divorced men, and lowest among those still married. Single men fall somewhere in between.

The impact of divorce on suicide is so strong, it can even be gleaned from international comparisons. Among industrialized nations, those with the highest divorce rates also have the highest suicide rates. 

For example, a 2008 study out of the U.K. concluded that suicide and divorce rates saw parallel increases and a simultaneous peak in the late 1990s. Suicides then dropped while divorces did not, likely because of more intervention among teenage boys, the researchers speculated.

But divorce also tends to crop up more in regions that are susceptible to alcoholism, drug abuse and widespread migratory tendencies -- oil and gas boom towns, for example. So suicide rates might be less about divorce, and more about a confluence of precipitating factors -- factors that are clearly taking a greater toll on men, who account for 79 percent of the 32,000 suicides in 2005.

Denney's research, published last year in Social Science Quarterly, concluded that men who are divorced are 39 percent more likely to commit suicide than those still married. The difference increases to 50 percent when a man is a widow. 

Among women, differences in suicide risk among those who were married, divorced or widowed were statistically insignificant. 

Health experts remain unsure of the specific reason for the widespread incongruity, but Denney suspects that marriage offers a support system for men that's uniquely beneficial.

"Maybe they forge a relationship and a reliance on their partner that's specific to that relationship," he told AOL News. "Much as marriage is important to women, it just doesn't seem to be the driving factor."

Other research has already shown that married men enjoy major health benefits, including a boost to longevity and a decreased risk of smoking or alcohol and drug abuse. "Married men don't engage in the same risky behaviors," Denney said. "That stability could be a further protective factor."

And while married women often balance employment with child rearing, Denney said statistics suggest they're coping quite well. "Women remain the primary caretakers in most households," he said. "They're working more, yet feeling better."

That might be what explains a divorced or widowed woman's relatively low suicide risk. Denney's subsequent research, published in February's Journal of Marriage and Family, concluded that children offered a major protective effect against suicide. For each additional child in a household, adults were 6 percent less likely to commit suicide.

Denney's latest research, which has yet to be published, indicates that this protective effect is even more significant among women, whether married, divorced or widowed.

"Closer relationships with children mean more connections with people outside of themselves," he said. "It's enough to distinguish women from men when we're talking about suicide and family structure."

Preventive efforts already treat isolation as one risk factor for suicide, and Denney wants that broadened to incorporate marital status. For now, though, more study on the protective benefits of marriage is needed. 

"This remains a neglected area," he said. "But more and more, there seems to be a connection between living arrangements and the risks they entail for one's life."


[Addendum: 2010APR10 NYTimes - Is Marriage Good for Your Health?   Outlines the very early assumptions that there a health advantage to marriage and to identify marital loss as a significant risk factor for poor health. Not to confuse correlation with causation. (Better health among the married sometimes simply reflects the fact that healthy people are more likely to get married in the first place.) it seems to me obvious that "healthy" marriage does appear to have benefits - physical, mental and social (although I would caution against counting all of that benefit to a spouse as  it one should consider the contribution of children and subsequent extended family.) 

For many years, studies like these have influenced both politics and policy, fueling national marriage-promotion efforts, like the Healthy Marriage Initiative of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. From 2006 to 2010, the program received $150 million annually to spend on projects like “divorce reduction” efforts and often cited the health benefits of marrying and staying married. Even the Healthy Marriage Initiative makes the distinction between “healthy” and “unhealthy” relationships when discussing the benefits of marriage. “When we divide good marriages from bad ones,” says the marriage historian Stephanie Coontz, who is also the director of research and public education for the Council on Contemporary Families, “we learn that it is the relationship, not the institution, that is key.

This article gives real exercise to the idea of a "gaping wound".  
“I don’t think anyone would encourage people to stay in a marriage that is really making them miserable,” says Linda J. Waite, a University of Chicago sociologist and an author of the study. “But try harder to make it better.” Even if marital problems seem small, Waite says, the data suggest it’s wise to intervene early and try to resolve them. “If you learn to how to manage disagreement early,” she says, “then you can avoid the decline in marital happiness that follows from the drip, drip of negative interactions.”]

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