Increased Risk of Child Suicide

The evidence that family functioning is related to the well being of children and adolescents is overwhelming, and mental health is no exception. It is therefore reasonable to expect that the significant changes in family structure and functioning in the post-war years––such as the increase in sole parent and blended/step households due to increased rates of divorce and ex-nuptial births––would have some effect on the psychological well being of children and adolescentsAccording to the Western Australian Child Health Survey (Silburn et al 1996), children in single parent and step/blended households have up to two times greater incidence of mental health problems than children in intact families (two natural parents). Garrison et al (1997) documented an almost 15 times higher prevalence of depression in 12 to 14 years olds not living with both of their natural parents.

Higher divorce rates in a society lead to higher suicide rates among children. Prior to the ‘divorce revolution’ of the 1970s unemployment was the biggest correlate with suicide, but that has changed. The work of Professor Patricia McCall (1994) of the Department of Sociology of North Carolina State University now shows that the largest demographic indicator of suicide is the family structure within which the person resides, and that the divorced family structure is most dangerous.  This link between the rise in adolescent suicide in the past three decades with parental divorce has been found again and again in the literature, and in cross-cultural studies of Japan and the United States. For children the suicide is often triggered by thoughts that their parents have rejected them (Nelson, et al 1988; Noevi Velez & Cohen 1988; Larson, Swyers, & Larson 1995) or have lost interest in them (Wodarski & Harris 1987).

Such a perception on the part of children may sometimes be based in reality and not be just a figment of their imagination. Not only do parents divorce each other, a divorce or ‘mini’ divorce happens between them and their children (Kershet & Rosenthal 1978). Unlike the experience of their parents, the child’s suffering does not reach its peak at the divorce and then level off (Wallerstein & Blakeslee 1989).   Rather, the effect of the parents’ divorce can be played and replayed throughout the next three decades of the children’s lives. These long-lasting effects are found in country after country no matter what the socio-economic status of the family. In 1998 the Parliament of Australia through the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs came to similar conclusions in its report ‘To Have and To Hold’.


Silburn et al (1996) Western Australian Child Health Survey: Family and Community Health. Australian Bureau of Statistics and The TVW Telethon Institute For Child Health Research: Perth, Western Australia.


Garrison C Z, Waller J L, Cuffe S P, et al (1997). Incidence of Major Depressive Disorder and Dysthymia In Young Adolescents. Journal of American Academy of Children and Adolescent Psychiatry. 36: 458-465


McCall P. L, & Land K. C (1994). Trends In White Male Adolescent, Young-Adult, and Elderly Suicide: Are There Common Underlying Structural Factors? Social Science Research. 23: 57-81


Nelson F. L, et al (Spring 1988). Youth Suicide In California: A Comparative Study of Perceived Causes and Interventions. Community Mental Health. 24: 31-42


Noevi Velez C, & Cohen P (1988). Suicidal Behaviour and Ideation. In A Community Sample of Children: Maternal and Youth Reports. Journal of The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. 27(3): 349-356


Larson D. B, Swyers J P, & Larson S.S (1995). The Costly Consequences of Divorce. National Institute for Healthcare Research, Rockville, MD p 124


Wodarski J. S, & Harris P (1987). Adolescent Suicide: A Review of Influences and The Means For Prevention. Social Work. 36(2): 477-484  


Kershet H. F, & Rosenthal K. M (May-June 1978) Single Parent Fathers: A New Study. pp 13-14.


Wallerstein J. S, & Blakeslee S (1989). Second Chances: Men, Women, and Children: A Decade After Divorce. Houghton Mifflin Company: Boston. Reprinted 1996 

House of Representatives (1998) Standing Committee On Legal and Constitutional Affairs. To Have and To Hold. Parliament of Australia: Canberra.


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