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'Real Housewives' death could be linked to divorce

August 16, 2011|By Karen Kaplan, Los Angeles Times / For the Booster Shots blog
  • Russel and Taylor Armstrong in happier times. Russel Armstrong apparently hanged himself Monday after the couple's marriage fell apart. Studies suggest a link between divorce and suicide.
Russel and Taylor Armstrong in happier times. Russel Armstrong apparently… (Frazer Harrison/Getty…)

Fans of “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” are still absorbing the news that Russell Armstrong, the estranged husband of “housewife” Taylor Armstrong, hanged himself Monday night in an apparent suicide. The 47-year-old Armstrong had moved out of the couple's home several months ago after it became clear that the six-year marriage could not be saved, and Taylor Armstrong filed for divorce last month.

This post has been corrected. See the note at bottom for details.

Authorities are investigating the circumstances of Armstrong's death. His motivations may never become clear. But time and again, researchers have found a link between a change in marital status and the risk of suicide.

For starters, an analysis of suicide rates in 18 industrialized countries (including the United States) between 1983 and 2007 found that an increase in divorce rates was correlated with an increase in suicides. In fact, the divorce rate appeared to have a bigger impact on suicides than the unemployment rate or the overall state of the economy. “The fact that increasing divorce rates are linked with increasing suicides in men as well as in women can be interpreted as showing that stable social relationships provide protection against suicide,” Austrian researchers reported in March in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine.

In addition, a study out this year in the journal Crisis found that 10.7% of suicide victims had experienced a change in marital status in the previous five years; in comparison, only 5.6% of people in a control group had changed their marital status. The study, by researchers at the Institute of Public Health of the Republic of Slovenia, included data on more than 1,600 suicides in that country. (The researchers found that in addition to getting divorced, getting married and being widowed also increased the risk of suicide.)

In Taiwan, researchers found that suicide rates rose in conjunction with the popularity of Google searches using the keyword “divorce.” Other search terms linked with the divorce rate included “major depression” and “complete guide of suicide,” according to a July report in the Journal of Affective Disorders.

Perhaps the link has something to do with shame. That theory was proposed by researchers writing in April in the journal Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior (“the official journal of the American Assn. of Suicidology”). Using data from Australia, they reported that men who were separated scored significantly higher on measures of “internalized shame” than men who were either single or married. Furthermore, men who were separated had a significantly higher “suicidality score” than women who were separated. In men, shame leads to anger, and that anger may turn inward and cause suicidal behavior, the researchers said.

Russell Armstrong did not leave a note, according to Los Angeles County Assistant Chief Coroner Ed Winter. That may be unusual under the circumstances. In a 2011 study of more than 1,000 suicides in Australia, researchers from the University of Tasmania found that although only 33% of victims left a note, people going through divorces and other kinds of “interpersonal conflicts” were more likely to leave a note behind.

Finally, the members of a divorcing couple aren’t the only ones who suffer. A large Canadian study published in May in the journal Psychiatry Research found that men who were children when their parents got divorced were more than twice as likely to think about killing themselves as men whose parents stayed together. (For women, there was no link between parental divorce during childhood and suicidal ideation.)

[For the Record, 11:30 a.m. Aug. 17: The headline in an earlier version of this post referred to Russell Armstrong's death as a suicide. It is an apparent suicide. The text had mispelled his first name as Russel.]

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