Divorce and Depression: Are Boys Really More Suicidal when Parents Split Up?

Filed under: Divorce & Custody

Divorce is no cake walk for anyone, adult or child. Even adult children-of-divorce suffer, that is, if you fall for the new study showing men who were kids when their parents divorced thought of suicide more than those whose parents were married. If someone only read the headlines it would be easy to get the impression children never recover from their folks splitting up.

The reality? Those unlucky grown children-of-divorce are now collecting retirement. They have grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Their parents divorced back in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s and not in cosmopolitan New York or California but in Saskatchewan, Canada, well before the dawn of The Demi Moore/Bruce Willis Amicable Post-Divorce Parenting Phenomenon. Let's be real. Who separated during the Great Depression or World War II? Not many. Of the 6,744 adults surveyed, only 695 had divorced parents, that's a little over 10 percent. The societal stigma of divorce alone was enough to keep a woman in a loveless, if not rotten, or abusive marriage. Of course those kids fared poorly.

No wonder some thought about suicide. How often? Don't know. The suicide data boils down to a single yes-or-no question whether the respondents had "seriously" considered committing suicide. We also don't know when in the past 50 to 80 years these thoughts occurred or if they resulted in any suicide attempts. Obviously no one in this study actually killed themselves. There's that at least.

How many people thought about suicide? Exactly 17.5 percent of men and 17.5 percent of women with divorced parents, compared with 5.5 percent of men and 8.7 percent of women with married parents. Some media translated this as three times the risk for males. Scary!

The numbers look bad; the women's deep dark thoughts, however, can't be blamed on divorce. Not at all. Instead, blame the usual baggage that accompanied people who divorced way back when -- the poverty, the physical abuse, the drinking. When researchers controlled for those variables, there was no relationship between suicidal thoughts and divorce. That means divorce was in no way responsible for those troubling and troubled thoughts. Girls weren't depressed because their parents broke up, but because Daddy beat Mommy and there wasn't enough food on the table.

Men, though, were twice as likely to report suicidal thoughts even after controlling for the other variables. The researchers probably missed an important factor or two, but let's accept the link. It's understandable why boys would have suffered more than girls. Daddy wasn't around much. Sons had to suck it up and be all manly. Darius Rucker certainly wasn't singing "It's Alright to Cry." Not Marlo Thomas or Rosey Grier either.

Divorce deserves serious attention. Absolutely. That's why this dated data shouldn't get a free pass. It made good headlines, but the actual evidence is less sensational and belongs in an archive rather than today's How to Divorce Handbook. So go cry and get the sad out, but don't linger in the past.

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Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.