SUNDAY, Nov. 19 (HealthScout) -- Divorced or separated men are more than twice as likely to kill themselves as men who remain married.
On the other hand, a marital split is not a significant risk factor for suicide among women.
These are the findings of a recent study of suicide and divorce that reveal a surprising gender gap on the issue.
"We knew from past research that divorce was linked to increased risk of suicide," says Augustine Kposowa, the author of the study that appeared in The Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health. "What we didn't know was the difference between men and women in this respect."
Kposowa, an associate professor of sociology at the University of California at Riverside, based his findings on death statistics compiled in the National Longitudinal Mortality study, which tracks causes of death. He analyzed the cause of death for almost 472,000 men and women over a nine-year period, starting with 1979. In that group, 432 men and 113 women had committed suicide.
Kposowa says the link between divorce and suicide in men holds true even after adjusting for other factors associated with suicide risk, including age, income and level of education. Race is also a factor, with 50 percent more white than black men committing suicide.
For women, he found, age is a stronger factor than marital status. The suicide rates were higher for women over 65.
The medical director of the American Foundation for the Prevention of Suicide, Dr. Herbert Hendin, says it's been widely known that men are more than four times as likely to commit suicide as women.
But their heightened suicide risk after divorce or separation could involve a host of variables, Hendin, a professor of psychiatry at New York Medical College, adds.
More than half of those who commit suicide have substance-abuse problems, which are more common in men and often lead to marital breakups, he says.
Trying to cope with loss of control
Control can also be an issue for some men who insist on being the ones who decide what happens and when in their lives, he adds. They can feel particularly threatened when their wives file for divorce.
Hendin speculates that the findings concerning divorced women and suicide may reflect a change in women's attitudes. In the past, he says, women may have had their self-esteem more closely tied to their marriages and were devastated when that relationship failed.
"We're probably seeing that women are more able to deal with life on their own now," he says.
Kposowa's own theories, which he intends to test through further research, include the link between men and their children, which he says is often severed because the woman is usually awarded custody.
"A man may not get to see his children, even with visitation rights," Kposowa says. "As far as the man is concerned, he has lost his marriage and lost his children and that can lead to depression and suicide."
Kposowa next says he intends to compare suicide rates of divorced fathers with those of divorced men with no children.
Another possible explanation for the gender gap in post-divorce suicide risk is that women cope better because they are more likely to have supportive networks of friends and family, Kposowa says.
That rings true to Dr. Michael Meyer, a clinical professor in the department of psychiatry at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver and author of the book, Men and Divorce.
"Men tend not to talk to their male friends that easily about personal problems in their lives," Meyer says. "And, they also tend not to go to their primary care physicians as easily as women for anything or seek psychiatric help of any kind. The result can be a very scary sense of isolation."
What To Do
If you are a man going through a divorce, you should talk to someone about it -- a primary care physician, counselor or psychiatrist -- as soon as possible.
The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention answers frequently asked questions about suicide and provides information about community-based screening programs for depression.
And you can read more about depression at the National Institute of Mental Health's site.