In 1897, the French sociologist Emile Durkheim published a theory of suicide that is still being tested to this day. In trying to understand why people might kill themselves, it is easy to jump straight to psychological explanations – for example, perhaps they were suffering from severe psychopathology. Durkheim, though, was a sociologist, not a psychologist, and the factors he deemed significant were societal ones.
One of the most important predictors of whether people will commit suicide, Durkheim thought, was the degree to which they were integrated into society: those who are more integrated will be less likely to kill themselves.
I don’t read French, so I’ll quote secondary sources. Matt Wray and his colleagues, in the article “The sociology of suicide,” describe integration in society as:
“the sense of social belonging and inclusion, the love, care, and concern that can flow (or not flow) from social ties. Well integrated groups…enjoy stable, durable, and cohesive ties. Individuals in such groups are supported in their lives, particularly during times of personal crises, thereby reducing their vulnerability to suicide.”
Social ties, Durkheim believed, were not just important for the support they provided. They also offer something else that deters suicide: regulation, including “monitoring, oversight, and guidance.”
If social integration and regulation are important, Durkheim argued, then factors such as religion, social change, and marital status should be among the important determinants of whether people kill themselves. A contemporary sociologist, Augustine Kposowa, explained the significance of marriage in Durkheim’s model:
“…married life provides a sense of cohesiveness and support that is not available to single, divorced, or widowed persons. Divorce disrupts this cohesion, and accordingly…increases the risk of suicide.”
Single people, in this theory, are susceptible to what Durkheim called “egoistic suicide,” which results from low levels of social integration. “Anomic suicide” can be triggered by too little social regulation or “a sudden and unexpected change in a person’s social standing, for example, a shift from being married to being divorced or widowed.”
Using the data and methods available in the late 1800s, Durkheim claimed support for his predictions. The key question for anyone interested in the link between marital status and suicide is whether the finding that unmarried people kill themselves more than married people holds up to the superior data and analytic methods available in the 21st century. (Of course, the actual link between marital status and suicide could also change over time.)
It is easy to find 21st century claims – both by journalists, and sadly, some social scientists – that marriage protects people from suicide. I described the evidence in more detail elsewhere. The bottom line is this: When the most rigorous statistical analysis is applied to high-quality data, there is no link whatsoever between marital status and suicide among women. Whether they are currently married, divorced, widowed, or have always been single, their suicide risk is about the same. For men, only the divorced have a higher suicide rate than the currently married.
It is not the fact of being unmarried that mattered. Those who had always been single – both the men and the women – were as unlikely as the currently married to kill themselves. It was only those who were once married and then divorced, and then, only the men in that category, whose suicide rates were higher than the currently married.
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