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Motherhood a Buffer Against Suicide

Study shows that risk declines as number of children rises

MONDAY, March 22 (HealthDay News) -- There may be something about raising children that helps shield women from suicide, a study involving over a million Taiwanese mothers suggests.

In fact, women's suicide rates declined as the number of children they cared for rose, the team reported March 22 in the Canadian Medical Association Journal.

"People have always known this clinically, although it's never been statistically or empirically verified," said Dr. Jon Shaw, director and professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. "Clearly, women with children who are still being cared for by the mother decreases the likelihood of the mother hurting or killing herself partly because she's so emotionally invested in the children and, in a very complex way, killing herself means killing her children as well, and depriving them of a mother."

In fact, there's other evidence suggesting that the protective effect of having offspring extends to fathers as well, Shaw said.

This large study, out of Taiwan, also extends our knowledge base to more areas of the world.

"Because this is the first study in Asia, it adds some international confirmation for the finding," said Alan L. Berman, executive director of the American Association of Suicidology and president of the International Association for Suicide Prevention. "Now we can say that [the phenomenon] is not specific to any specific part of the world."

Until now, the most convincing studies on motherhood and suicide have been conducted in Norway, Denmark and Finland, all of which found a lower risk of suicide in mothers versus women without children.

According to background information in the paper, men have a higher suicide rate than women -- three times as high in Western countries and twice as high in Taiwan.

These authors followed almost 1.3 million women in Taiwan who had given birth at least once. The study spanned 20 years, from 1987 to 2007.

Compared to women with one child, those who had at least two live births had a 39 percent lower chance of committing suicide, while those who had three or more children had a 60 percent lower chance than women who had just one child.

The study's author, Chun-Yuh Yang from Kaohsiung Medical University in Taiwan, couldn't report the rate of suicide among women with no children because no data is kept on pregnancies that end before term. He also noted that a cause-and-effect relationship linking motherhood to reductions in suicide could not be established from this type of research.

But Berman said that bonds between people, including the parent-child relationship, are known to help keep suicide at bay.

"We've known that, in general, attachments, relative to the lack of attachments, are protective against suicide assuming there's no significant psychiatric disorder in the individual," Berman said. "The data across the globe has almost universally pointed to higher rates of suicide among those who are divorced and widowed and single and never-married."

The study author pointed out another confounding factor: Underlying psychiatric disorders such as depression may prevent women from getting married or having children in the first place.

"Being married and with children for any number of hypothesized reasons provides a sense of being needed as a nurturer, as an emotional support, of having one's own emotional life reasonably in control to provide support," Berman explained.

More information

There's more on suicide prevention at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

SOURCES: Jon Shaw, M.D., director and professor, division of child and adolescent psychiatry, University of Miami Miller School of Medicine; Alan L. Berman, Ph.D., executive director, American Association of Suicidology, Washington, D.C. and president, International Association for Suicide Prevention; March 22, 2010, Canadian Medical Association Journal

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