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Suicide and Divorce

I've got bad news for you about suicide. The fact that you're divorced or thinking about divorce places you at greater risk for suicide. This page is all about why you're at greater risk for killing yourself when you're going through divorce, and what you can do to deal with it.

The Effect of Divorce on Suicide Risk

One recent study by the National Institute for Healthcare Research in Rockville, MD indicates that divorced people are three times as likely to commit suicide as people who are married. The Institute says that divorce now ranks as the number one factor linked with suicide rates in major U.S. cities, ranking above all other physical, financial, and psychological factors.

A study of 13 European countries by the regional European office of the World Health Organization found that divorce was the only factor linked with suicide in every one of the 13 countries. The study showed that factors like poverty, unemployment, and disability were associated with divorce in some of the countries but that disruption of the family was the only factor linked with divorce in all 13.

Anecdotally, the coroner of Butler County, Ohio told UPI in the late 80's that he thought the high rate of suicide in that area was traceable to men's inability to cope with divorce. Dr. Richard Burkhardt said he thought women were more likely to feel needed after divorce because they needed to take care of children. But men, he said, felt cut off from their role as head of the household and felt they had no reason to live.

Statistically, women are more likely to attempt suicide, but men are more likely to succeed. Suicide is more likely among men over age 65, among young people, among disabled people, and among people in lower socio-economic groups.

Danger Signs

If you're thinking about killing yourself, you already know how close you are to suicide. This section isn't about helping you figure out if you're going to kill yourself. Instead, it's geared to helping you spot the signs that someone else you love may be thinking about it. An estimated 80% of people who commit suicide actually exhibit signs of their intentions before they kill themselves.

Here are some of the signs that a person may be thinking about suicide:

  • Giving away prized possessions.
  • Speaking in an unusual way about deep feelings for a person, or particularly a succession of people.
  • Increased drug or alcohol use.
  • Sleeping too much or too little.
  • Withdrawing from friends.
  • Withdrawing from social activities.
  • Making out a will, making funeral arrangements, etc.
  • Loss of interest in personal appearance.
  • Risky behaviors and thrill-seeking
  • Dwelling on death or suicide in poetry, music, art, or creative writing
  • Paradoxically, a suddenly elevated mood (sometimes people actually cheer up when they've made up their mind to kill themselves, as if a burden has been lifted).

Obviously, many of these behaviors occur in people who have never given a moment's thought to suicide. Our task is to look for patterns and to be ready to intervene when they emerge.

The most important and most alarming sign of suicide is in the words people use. Here are some of the statements people might make or joke about as they contemplate suicide:

  • "I think it's time to end it all."
  • "I think I may just check out,"
  • "I don't think I can take this any more."
  • "Life isn't worthwhile" or "Life isn't worth living anymore."
  • "Life stinks and I'm tired of it."
  • "I sometimes just want to die."

And sometimes the statements are less direct:

  • "Sometimes I just want to sleep forever."
  • "They'll be sorry when I'm gone."
  • "I'm so worthless."
  • "I think the pain will be over soon."
  • "Life is more complicated for everybody because of me."

People are at greater risk to commit suicide if they have a close friend or family member who has committed suicide. They are at far greater risk to commit suicide if they have tried to do it before.

What You Can Do

We often shy away from confronting suicide because we believe that mentioning it might make a person start thinking about it when they weren't before, or conclude it's okay when they didn't think so before. Researchers tell us there's little risk of that.

If you see enough of the Danger Signs to be concerned there's a risk of suicide, you need to act. The quickest and most decisive way to deal with a risk of suicide is to ask about it -- directly.

Here's the plan. When someone says one of those statements I've listed above or anything else that makes you concerned they're thinking about suicide, simply ask, "Are you thinking about killing yourself?" Most people will say something like "Oh, no. I'm having a tough time of it, but I'm not thinking about suicide."

Sometimes, though, they will say something like "Yeah, it's crossed my mind." If they do, don't panic. Stay calm, and ask, "How would you do it?" If they don't really know how they would do it, you should be concerned but it may be safe to leave them alone temporarily. You may want to work toward a no-suicide contract. The idea here is to get them to agree that before they hurt themselves, they will call you or some other resource, and talk over what they are planning to do.

If they have a specific plan, as in "The shotgun is in the upstairs closet and there are two shells on the middle shelf," you need to stay with them until you can get some help.

Researchers also tell us that the reasoning that makes so much sense to most of us, "You have so much to live for," rarely makes any sense to a suicidal person. It's not up to you to convince them never to commit suicide. It's up to you to keep them talking until more decisive help can arrive. Talk about the problems they're struggling with, the options they've thought about, the color of their shoes, or how awful the Cubs are. Just keep them talking.

If You're Thinking About Killing Yourself

If you're the one who's thinking about suicide, you need to get help. If you don't know anybody else to call, call your local crisis center. If you don't have a local crisis center and can afford a long distance call, my city of Birmingham, Alabama, U.S.A. has a wonderful crisis center staffed 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. It's at (205) 323-7777. If you don't have a local crisis center and can't afford a long distance call, call your local police. They'll put you in touch with the right resources for your area.

If you're thinking about killing yourself right now, click here.

If you're not actively planning to kill yourself but think you might be tempted in the future, sit down now and make a list of the five people you think would be most helpful to talk to before you kill yourself, beginning with the one you think would be most helpful. Make a "no-suicide" contract with yourself to call all five people in sequence before you kill yourself.

Later you might be so distraught that you can't think whom to call. The list could be helpful then.

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