Researcher finds higher rate of suicide in separated and divorced people

Separated and divorced people are the most overrepresented group among suicides in Ontario, according to a York professor who is researching a way to identify and help people most at risk as a result of estrangement.

“Estrangement from an intimate partner clearly increases the risk of suicide and attempted suicide,” says sociology Professor Desmond Ellis, who conducts research at York’s LaMarsh Centre for Research on Violence & Conflict Resolution. “In order to intervene effectively, we need tools to assess the risk of suicide and we need to design mechanisms to intervene. Both must be based on evidence about the biological and social differences between men and women.”

Left: Desmond Ellis

In 2006, there were 1,108 deaths in Ontario recorded as suicides by the Office of the Chief Coroner. Ellis analyzed data collected from the coroner’s files on 1,098 of those cases. He found that although separated and divorced people made up 10 per cent of the population of Ontario that year, they accounted for 25 per cent of the suicides. In contrast, married people made up 49 per cent of the population, but less than 30 per cent of the total number who committed suicide. Single people made up 30 per cent of people over age 15 in Ontario, and accounted for 36 per cent of the suicides.

Analysis of the statistics confirmed research findings indicating that men are much more likely than women to commit suicide: females accounted for 25 per cent of the suicides in Ontario in 2006, while men made up 75 per cent. However, the statistics also revealed that among the separated or divorced group, the percentage of male suicides was even higher, at 81 per cent.

In contrast to males, females are much more likely to attempt to commit suicide – approximately three women try to kill themselves for every male attempt.

“Suicides and attempted suicides are preventable because they reflect constricted choices made by individuals,” says Ellis. “Many estranged men and women who make the decision to kill themselves or attempt to kill themselves have appeared before a family court judge, spoken with family law lawyers or divorce mediators, visited marriage counsellors, emergency wards or their doctor. We need an evidence-based risk assessment/management instrument that counsellors and others can use.”

There are a number of interventions that may be appropriate for people who are at risk for suicide because of estrangement, says Ellis. They include gender-resocialization, which for men focuses on changing attitudes toward such things as risk taking, suicide as a masculine solution to personal problems, and seeking help.  

For women, gender-resocialization intervention focuses on changing attitudes about self-harm generally and addressing the belief that attempting to commit suicide is a feminine solution to personal problems and/or a way of seeking help. For both men and women, counselling for substance abuse and mental health issues or domestic violence treatment programs aimed specifically at reducing control-motivated violence may be appropriate, as well as referral to programs that focus on reducing the isolation an individual may be feeling. Gun exchange programs, to remove weapons from the homes of people who have already attempted to commit suicide, and conflict resolution programs may also be recommended.

Estrangement often culminates in separation and divorce, in which adversarial proceedings tend to escalate conflict. Participation in non-adversarial separation/ divorce proceedings such as divorce mediation tends to de-escalate conflict and promote collaboration, Ellis says, and would make a positive contribution towards decreasing the risk of suicide and attempted suicide by estranged partners.