Marital status and suicide

Nicole M. King
May 26, 2016
Reproduced with Permission
Family Edge

The News Story - St. Joe's Health Care Foundation unveils new suicide prevention program

Officials at St. Joseph's Health Care Foundation announced this week that the city of London, Ontario, "will soon be home to a new suicide prevention program that will become the first of its kind in Canada."

"'Zero Suicide' has been implemented in other countries across the globe, including the U.S and the U.K.," reports the news source , "and supporters believe it has cut down on suicides by up to 80 percent when used in health systems." Phase 1, which involves education and training in one area within the hospital, will cost about $1 million; Phase 2 will cost even more and take longer. The story closed with the sobering statistic that in Canada, "Suicide remains one of the leading causes of death among those aged 15 to 34."

But any efforts to stem the tide of suicide will fall short unless policymakers and healthcare practitioners also take into consideration the broader anti-marriage culture that sustains it.

The New Research - Suicide among the divorced and separated

Suicide hotlines have multiplied in recent decades, as have suicide-prevention programs required of educators and other government employees. These well-meaning efforts may prove all-too-unavailing at a time when a growing number of individuals are losing the powerful protection of an intact marriage as a defense against self-destructive despair. Underscoring the importance of that protection, a new study highlights marital status as a potent statistical predictor of suicide.

Conducted by a team of researchers at Case Western University, this new study parses data from 148 suicide victims against comparison data from 257 individuals who died suddenly as a result of accidents or medical problems. To assess the circumstances surrounding all 405 deaths, the researchers examine demographic variables, recent stressful life events, and psychiatric diagnoses.

In interpreting their findings, the researchers connect these three data categories to explain suicide risk. Marital status emerges as important in two of these life categories. First, the researchers conclude that "demographic factors set the stage" for suicide. They identify marital status as one of the important demographic factors setting that tragic stage, and note that "unmarried elderly white males are at increased risk of suicidal behavior." More broadly, they find that in their study, "Suicide completers were more likely than comparison subjects to be divorced, separated or widowed [p < 0.05]."

When the researchers shift their focus from demographic variables to recent stressful life events, marital status persists as an indirect consideration. In illustrating how such events can precipitate a "suicidal crisis," the researchers point to the "increased risk of suicidal behavior in the months following an important loss, such as recently after a divorce or death of a loved one," two marital-transition events.

The researchers are hardly surprised that marital status stands out in their study as a predictor of suicide. Indeed, they interpret their findings as "consistent with extensive research that has demonstrated the close link between suicide risk and marital status," and they cite earlier research documenting "the negative effect of divorce, separation, and widowhood on suicide risk . . . in 12 developing countries." Their own work, like earlier studies of suicide, would seem to indicate that "support and intimacy . . . is often provided through a marital relationship [and] may play an important role in protecting individuals from periods of extreme emotional distress and help to reduce their risk of a suicidal crisis."

Hoping "to educate school teachers, guidance counselors, police officers, spiritual leaders, and healthcare professionals," the researchers conclude their study by urging these groups to recognize that "identification of high-risk groups can play a critical role in the prevention of suicide." But just how much can these public servants do to prevent suicide when a culture destructive of lasting marriage puts more and more men and women into the high-risk divorced and separated groups?