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The Disturbing Effects Of Families

Although the presence of children may protect their parents from suicide, the parents may increase the risk of suicide in the children. Even sibling position may play a role, as Alfred Adler (1958) suggested, with completed suicide being less common in last-borns and attempted suicide less common in first borns (Lester 2000).

Although in general, having a spouse and children reduces the risk of suicide, family members can play a role in precipitating suicide. For example, often family members feel and express a great deal of hostility toward one another. In psychic homicide, an individual commits suicide in response to the conscious or unconscious murderous impulses for them (Meerloo 1962). The role of murderous desires of parents toward their offspring may play a greater role in adolescent suicides than in the suicides of older adults. Transactional analysis has proposed that suicidal individuals had parents who experienced these desires (such as "I wish you had never been born") during the baby's first year of life.

It is difficult to show these effects with research, but the hostility has been observed at the time of the suicidal behavior. For example, Milton Rosenbaum and Joseph Richman (1970) in their study of attempted suicides reported a mother's first statement to her 24-year-old son in the hospital, "Next time pick a higher bridge." Or a wife whose 70-year-old husband said to her, "If I had a gun, I'd shoot myself," replied, "I'll buy you a gun." He used pills a few days later instead. A father said to his 17-year-old daughter, "We'd all be better off if you were dead. At least we'd know where you are."

There are many features of family life that impact on suicidal behavior. Abuse of children, both physically and sexually, appears to result in an increase in later suicidal behavior as well as other psychiatric disorders and symptoms.

Loss of parents during childhood, especially between the ages of six and sixteen, increases the risk of suicide. David Lester (1989) found that exactly half of a sample of famous suicides, for whom detailed biographies were available, had experienced such loss, such as the poet Sylvia Plath whose father died of natural causes when she was eight. If the parent dies from suicide, then suicide is even more likely in the children.

In general, research finds that married couples in which one partner attempts suicide have poorer communication between each other and more destructive conflicts (such as avoiding discussion and fleeing the home), and that the suicidal partner is more psychiatrically disturbed (Lester 2000).

Suicidal behavior in family members increases the risk of suicide in other family members, perhaps because this indicates a greater acceptance of suicidal behavior as a solution to problems in that family, or perhaps because the occurrence of suicide in many family members indicates the presence of an inherited psychiatric disorder. In the Hemingway family, for example, Ernest's father completed suicide, and so did three of his six children (including Ernest, of course). It is likely that an affective disorder was passed down in this family, but also completing suicide in middle age when suffering from severe medical problems appears to have become a learned strategy in the family.

However, this copycat (or contagion) effect is also found in social groups. A suicide in an adolescent is occasionally followed by "imitation" suicides among his or her peers (Maris, Berman, and Silverman 2000), and in these cases inheritance does not play a role.

Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaFamily Social IssuesSuicide - The Epidemiology Of Suicide, Theories Of Suicide, Marital Status And The Family, The Protective Effect Of Children