Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Family and Household Formations and Suicide in the United States

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Family and Household Formations and Suicide in the United States

Article excerpt

Family support systems have been theoretically linked to suicide risk. But no research to date has investigated the effects of detailed living arrangements on individual risk of suicide. Using data on 825,462 adults from the National Health Interview Survey Linked Mortality File reveals that living in families with stronger sources of social support and integration decreases risk of suicide. These effects persist despite controls for important individual level characteristics. Risk of suicide decreases for persons in married as well as unmarried families when children are present and risk increases for persons living with unrelated adults. These results reveal the structural importance of family formation on the social integrative forces that contribute to an individual's risk of suicide.

Key Words: family, living arrangements, mortality, suicide.

Sociologists have long been interested in social factors impacting suicide risk. Following a tradition established by the French sociologist Emile Durkheim (1951/1897), much of the work has focused on larger social contexts, including characteristics of counties, cities, and nations (Bailer & Richardson, 2002; O'Brien & Stockard, 2006; Pampel, 1996; Stockard & O'Brien, 2002; Wadsworth & Kubrin, 2007). At both the aggregate and individual level (Breault, 1986; Kposowa, Breault, & Singh, 1995; Kposowa, 2000; Stack, 2000a, 2000b), this impressive body of work documents the effects of social relationships and circumstances on suicide and highlights the deleterious effects of family histories of depression and other mental illnesses on suicide risk (Qin, Agerbo, & Mortensen, 2003; Tremeau et al, 2005). Some work even provides evidence that suicide is heritable, and the propensity to commit suicide can be transmitted within families (see Brent & Mann, 2005, for a review). But despite theoretical links to domestic support systems, very few studies have examined suicide within varying family environments, and no studies to date have focused on the living arrangements within the household. Accordingly, this paper builds on existing theoretical tenets surrounding the family and suicide risk by examining a major contributor to preventable mortality as not just an individual or an aggregate phenomenon but as a health issue enveloped in individual circumstances and family configurations.

THE SIGNIFICANCE AND THEORETICAL HISTORY OF SUICIDE

Suicide is a pervasive cause of death-it has remained a leader of preventable mortality over the last 50 years, and the most current government reports show that it was the 11th leading cause of death and the second leading external cause of mortality (behind accidents, but far ahead of homicides) in the United States in 2005, contributing to over 32,000 deaths (Kung, Hoyert, Xu, & Murphy, 2008).

Largely driven by the work of Durkheim (1951/1897), suicide has been identified as a cause of death directly linked to social conditions. Durkheim proposed and empirically supported that, although clearly an individual act, taking one's own life is rooted in social relationships and social structure. At the heart of social structure are the intersection of what Durkheim termed social integration and social regulation (Bearman, 1991). Theoretically applied, social integration consists of ways in which individuals are bonded to each other, and social regulation is the extent to which individuals are held to group values, beliefs, and norms. Thus, Durkheim based his typologies of suicide on the levels (or lack) of social integration and regulation possessed.

Many suicide scholars since have noted the difficulty in specifying theoretically important differences between social integration and regulation. Johnson (1965) suggested that, upon closer inspection of the premises in Durkheim' s work, integration is a necessary component of regulation and is consequently the only component of social structure impacting suicide. …

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