The new study also found that the risk of a suicide attempt increased by 14 percent for people whose parents were divorced.
But putting those two factors together — parents who abuse alcohol and are divorced — did not increase suicide attempts, according to the study.
“These findings underscore the need for comprehensive client and family assessments by clinicians to identify people in particular need of early interventions,” said lead author Dana Alonzo, Ph.D., of Columbia University.
“Individuals whose parents were divorced or abused alcohol might be more vulnerable for suicide than those from intact or nonalcoholic households. Prevention and treatment efforts need to target groups that are accurately identified as at risk.”
For the study, researchers examined data from a 2001-2002 Department of Health and Human Services survey of 43,093 people 18 years old or older who were interviewed in person.
Of the 13,753 participants who reported they had suffered major depression at some point in their life, 1,073 said they had attempted suicide. Among those who attempted suicide, 25 percent said they had parents who divorced and 46 percent said one or both parents abused alcohol.
As for why homes disrupted by a combination of divorce and drinking didn’t lead to more attempted suicides, the researchers speculated that divorce may have decreased the levels of hostility at home and, therefore, didn’t contribute to a child’s becoming a maladjusted adult.
“Or, it may be that children with an alcoholic parent are not as surprised when their parents split up because they have already witnessed so much conflict, so it may not lead to as much confusion and resentment as it might in a better-functioning family,” Alonzo said.
The researchers assessed participants’ history of depression by asking if they ever felt sad over a period lasting at least two weeks; had they stopped caring about things important to them; or did they no longer enjoy their favorite things. Other questions were based on the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders (DSM) criteria for depression.
To determine if a participant’s parent had abused alcohol, researchers read definitions from the DSM criteria for alcohol abuse, including readily observable behaviors, and asked participants if they had witnessed those behaviors by their mother or father.
The study was published in the American Psychological Association’s American Journal of Orthopsychiatry.