Problem Drinking in the Family and Youth Suicide

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ABSTRACT

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. ā€¦