Problem Drinking in the Family and Youth Suicide
Fernquist, Robert M., Adolescence
Drawing from the work of Danigelis (1983), the present research put forth a theory of chronic stress to further our understanding of the processes related to suicide among 10- to 14-year-olds. Specifically, the relationship between problematic drinking in the home and youth suicide rates was examined. The hypothesis that chronic stress, as measured by problem drinking in the home, is related to youth suicide was supported.
Much has been written about overall and age- and sex-specific rates of suicide among persons 15 and older (Durkheim, 1897/1951; Stack, 1980, 1983; Wasserman, 1984; Trovato, 1987; Pampel, 1996; Fernquist & Cutright, 1998). Less is known about younger persons.
Durkheim (1897/1951) sought to explain the underlying social forces behind suicide, but he dismissed alcoholism as a significant cause. Recent research, though, has emphasized the importance of including alcoholism in studies on suicide (Brent, Perper, & Allman, 1987; Wagner, 1997).
Danigelis (1983) has theorized that stress is a significant factor in youth suicide. Based on Danigelis's theory, the present research attempted to link stress, specifically as measured by alcoholism in the family, to youth suicide in the United States.
First, this paper reviews the literature on the family's role in child suicide, including Danigelis's work on youth suicide. Although this research deals with youth suicide rates, most of the literature focuses on attempted rather than completed suicide. Second, it examines the role of chronic stress vis-a-vis youth suicide rates.
CHILD/YOUNG ADOLESCENT SUICIDE AND THE FAMILY
Using data from the Youth in Iceland 1992 Project, Thornlindsson and Bjarnason (1998) found that family integration, as measured by family social support and parental monitoring, was inversely related to both anomie and suicidality for high school students. They further asserted that their findings "underscore the centrality of integration" (p. 107) in the study of youth suicide. In a review of 85 studies on adolescent suicide from the early 1970s to the early 1990s, Kaplan and Maldaver (1993) found that suicide occurred most often when the youth's parents did not have strong attachments with each other, but rather were "individuated" and most interested in their own pursuits. Furthermore, Kaplan and Maldaver's own research, which included a sample of parents whose children had completed suicide, confirmed this pattern. In addition, Husain and Vandiver (1984) noted that family violence may increase youth suicidality, because abused children are often blamed for much of what goes on in the home, leading to sel f-hatred and lowering self-esteem. Clearly, then, the family plays a strong role in youth suicide.
Danigelis (1983) synthesized Durkheim's theory of integration (i.e., too little or too much integration increases the likelihood of suicide) and Steffenhagen's (1978, 1980) theory on drug abuse and how feelings of self-worth impact youths' perceptions of how they "fit in" with a group. Danigelis stated: "stress by itself, we are told, does not cause drug abuse (or any other form of deviant behavior for that matter).... But if one has low sell-esteem and one is confronted with stress or failure in reaching one's goals, then.., drug abuse [or other deviant behavior] is a likely result" (pp. 106-107). Danigelis further argued that social stress can cause youths to swing back and forth between social isolation (i.e., too low social integration) and social suffocation (i.e., too high social integration): "Why are these changes possible? One very plausible answer is: They occur only among low self-esteem youths, and it is precisely because such youths have low self-esteem that they are without the personal resourc es to find real solutions to life stresses and thus end up alternating between isolation...and suffocation...or between different forms of suffocation" (p. 107). Therefore, "low self-esteem promotes suicidal behavior only if stress is high and integration is too low or too high" (p. 107). The present research investigated a variation of Danigelis's theory. It was hypothesized that chronic stress is central to youth suicide, regardless of the level of self-esteem; chronic stress is likely to become unbearable even for children with high self-esteem.
In a review of research on alcoholism and its effects on children, Sher (1997) stated that children of alcoholics often experience abnormal psychological development due to inadequate parenting, deviant parental role models, and troubled parent-child relationships. Having an alcoholic parent, then, is likely to be a source of chronic stress in children's lives. Consequently, the present research examined the link between stress in children's lives, as measured by alcohol-related problems in the home, and youth suicide rates.
Finally, integration in the home profoundly impacts the psychological and social well-being of children (Wallerstein & Kelly, 1980; Olson & DeFrain, 1997; Thorlindsson & Bjarnason, 1998), and a measure of divorce was included in the present research. Further, religion has a strong impact on social integration, and Danigelis (1983) has contended that religion needs to be included in analyses of youth suicide. Therefore, one aspect of religious involvement was also investigated here.
Responses to Gallup (1995) surveys were used as the measure of chronic stress. (For 1988, data were from an ABC News poll, the wording of which was the same as that in the Gallup polls. Data from the 1962 Gallup poll were from female respondents only.) On average, 1,000 adults a year were asked the following: "Has drinking ever been a cause of trouble in your family?" The percentage saying yes was used as the indicator of chronic stress, since alcohol-related trouble is not likely to be an isolated event (Olson & DeFrain, 1997).
Data from 1947 to 1994 are presented in Table 1. Holinger et al. (1994) have pointed out that "it is difficult to overestimate the importance of studying longitudinal data....Not only can examining long-term trends aid in understanding the reason for ebbs and flows in suicide ... rates, but such evaluation also can help in preventing the short-sighted sensationalism that often pervades work in this area."
Even though child suicide is rare, there are still anywhere from 100 to 300 suicides per year among 10- to 14-year-olds in the United States (Holinger et al., 1994). Data on sex-specific suicide rates per 100,000 population for youths aged 10-14 (see Table 1) were obtained from the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (1947-1975), the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (1976-1996), and the U.S. Bureau of the Census (1950-1997). Persons under the age of 10 were omitted from this study, since the reported annual suicide rate of these persons has generally been zero (U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, 1947-1975; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 1976-1996).
There was concern that youth suicides may have been underreported from the 1950s through the 1970s (see Gist & Welch, 1989, who discussed rates for those aged 15-19; it was felt that their assertions were applicable here, with youths aged 10-14). However, Pescosolido and Mendelsohn (1986) have asserted that published suicide rates are valid and useful in scientific research.
The divorce variable consisted of data on the number of children (per 1,000) under the age of 18 who experienced parental divorce (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1950-1997). Data were unavailable for 1947, 1992, and 1994; therefore, 1950 data were also used for 1947, and 1990 data were also used for 1992 and 1994.
Data on church attendance for the general population came from Gallup (1995). No data were available for 1947, so 1950 data were also used for 1947.
A dummy variable for gender was used (males were coded as 1). For the regression analysis, first-order autocorrelation was corrected via Cochrane-Orcutt estimation (see Cochrane & Orcutt, 1949). The Durbin-Watson statistic indicated an absence of problematic autocorrelation. Variance inflation factors (VIF) were used to test for the effects of collinearity. According to Stack (1992), VIF over 5.0 indicates harmful collinearity; in the present study, the largest VIF was 1.89.
Means, standard deviations, and bivariate correlations are shown in Table 2. Problematic alcohol use in the home was significantly and positively related to youth suicide rates. There was a similar finding for divorce. In addition, males had significantly higher suicide rates than did females.
Results of the regression analysis (standardized coefficients) are shown in Table 3. Controlling for gender, divorce, and church attendance, problem drinking in the home was significantly related to higher youth suicide rates. Analysis also revealed that, after controlling for the other variables, males had significantly higher suicide rates than did females. Further, experiencing parental divorce was positively and significantly related to youth suicide rates when the other variables were controlled. However, gender explained the most variance in suicide rates.
The findings from the regression analysis support the theory that chronic stress, not self-esteem, is central in explaining youth suicide rates. The data revealed a link between youth suicide rates and problem drinking in the home. It must be remembered, however, that causality cannot be determined from correlational data (Wagner, 1997). For example, it is possible that parents' problem drinking led to child abuse or neglect and, consequently, suicide; yet, it is also possible that parents resorted to drinking as a coping mechanism after their child's suicide. Further research is needed to uncover cause-and-effect relationships between youth suicide and problem drinking in the home, as well as other relevant variables.
Thanks are expressed to Whitney Pope, Phillips Outright, and Nick Danigelis for their insights into the processes of youth suicide.
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Publication information: Article title: Problem Drinking in the Family and Youth Suicide. Contributors: Fernquist, Robert M. - Author. Journal title: Adolescence. Volume: 35. Issue: 139 Publication date: Fall 2000. Page number: 551. © 1999 Libra Publishers, Inc. COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group.