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Adults at Higher Risk of Suicide Attempt if Parent Abused Alcohol

People who grew up with a parent who abused alcohol may be 85% more likely to attempt suicide than people whose parents did not abuse alcohol, according to research published by the American Psychological Association.

Furthermore, having divorced parents increased by 14% the risk that a person would try to take his or her own life when compared with people whose parents did not divorce, the study found. But putting those two factors together - parents who abuse alcohol and are divorced - did not increase suicide attempts, according to the study, in APA's American Journal of Orthopsychiatry.

"These findings underscore the need for comprehensive client and family assessments by clinicians to identify people in particular need of early interventions," says lead author Dana Alonzo, PhD, of Columbia University. "Individuals whose parents were divorced or abused alcohol might be more vulnerable for suicide than those from intact or nonalcoholic households. Prevention and treatment efforts need to target groups that are accurately identified as at risk."

Researchers examined data from a 2001-2002 Department of Health and Human Services survey of 43,093 people aged 18 or older who were interviewed in person. A total of 13,753 participants reported they had suffered major depression at some point in their life and of those, 1,073 said they had attempted suicide. In the group that reported attempted suicide, 25% said they had parents who divorced and 46% said one or both parents abused alcohol. From the full sample, 2.4% reported a suicide attempt, 16% reported their parents were divorced, and 21% said at least one parent had abused alcohol.

As for why homes disrupted by a combination of divorce and drinking didn't lead to more risk of attempted suicides, the authors speculated that divorce may have decreased hostility at home and therefore didn't contribute to a child's becoming a maladjusted adult. "Or, it may be that children with an alcoholic parent are not as surprised when their parents split up because they have already witnessed so much conflict, so it may not lead to as much confusion and resentment as it might in a better-functioning family," Alonzo says.

The researchers assessed participants' history of depression by asking if they ever felt sad over a period lasting at least two weeks; had they stopped caring about things important to them; or did they no longer enjoy their favorite things. Other questions were based on the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders (DSM) criteria for depression. To determine if a participant's parent had abused alcohol, researchers read definitions from the DSM criteria for alcohol abuse, including readily observable behaviors, and asked participants if they had witnessed those behaviors by their mother or father.

The study was the first with a nationally representative sample to examine whether having divorced parents or a parent who abused alcohol affects the likelihood of suicide attempts, according to the authors.

— Source: American Psychological Association