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Suicidal thoughts higher among boys of divorced parents

SALT LAKE CITY — Sons of divorced parents are at greater risk of suicidal thoughts, new research by the University of Toronto has determined.

Boys whose parents had split up were three times as likely to seriously consider suicide compared to boys whose parents hadn't divorced. Researchers interviewed more than 6,500 adults and determined daughters are also at increased risk, but "boys are more vulnerable to the effects of marital breakups."

Dr. Douglas Gray, associate professor of child and adolescent psychiatry in the University of Utah's Department of Psychiatry and an expert in youth suicide, said boys and girls are vulnerable to the affects of divorce, but cultural factors may render boys more at risk.

"Their vulnerability is in their being less talkative, less willing to talk about problems," Gray said. Moreover, boys may be more reticent to get help.

However, suicidal thoughts is not uncommon among adolescents, Gray said. "When you think of suicide ideation in a teenager, It could be representative of a mental illness. It could be being overwhelmed with stress and certainly divorce would be one of the top stressor a child could experience."

Statistics show that girls are more likely to attempt suicide, but boys are far more likely to complete it. That is because boys tend to use more lethal means such as guns or hanging themselves. Girls are more likely to attempt to overdose. "Girls often end up OK, and we can help them through that crisis," Gray said.

The main reason a child would commit suicide is untreated or undertreated mental illness. Another reason, Gray said, is access to firearms.

The University of Utah is presently conducting research to determine the role genetics may play in suicidal thoughts and committing suicide.

Parents need to help reduce the stress of their children while going through a divorce and afterward. "The biggest thing is reducing the hostility. Hostility between the parents, when it's visible to the kids, is really harmful," Gray said.

Gray said his own research suggests that divorce could be a factor in completed suicide, although more work is needed to draw definite conclusions.

In the Utah Youth Suicide Study, researchers reviewed 151 suicides. Intensive interviews were conducted among 49 families. Of those, nine families had experienced a divorce within the past six months of the child's suicide.

"We didn't have a control group so we don't know what normal is but that sure sounds very high. You'd think that would be a risk factor for completed suicide," Gray said.

Divorce results in significant life changes such as cuts in income, living between households, possibly moving to a new neighborhood and school and leaving behind close friends.

"I think it's almost a stew of things, a stew of problems divorce brings and it's hard to just look at one factor."

Parents need to attempt to keep open lines of communication with their children when going through a divorce and afterward because mental health professionals now understand that divorce is not a "short-term crisis. It's something that affects you longitudinally," Gray said.

Understanding this, Nate and Heidi Brimhall sought out community resources to help their blended family of eight deal with their parents' respective divorces and their new family dynamic.

Recently, the Brimhalls attended the Smart Steps class offered by the Family Support Center.

"It's OK look for answers," Nate Brimhall said. "We all want to be good parents. We all think we know what's best. Ultimately you need help, to have somebody you can help you step in the right process and to help you see you're not alone is a big thing."

Boys may be more reluctant to talk than girls, but parents should make it clear that they would welcome the conversation at any time.

"When you try to talk to a teenage boy and you're not getting much, you can always tell them you love them, that you're available to talk about these things and you're comfortable talking about those things. What you'll find is there will be that moment and it might be three days later or two weeks later when they bring it up," Gray said.

Parents need to seize upon those "golden moments," stop what they're doing and have that conversation.

Contributing: Carole Mikita