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The Royal College of Psychiatrists Improving the lives of people with mental illness

‘Strong link’ between childhood sexual abuse and suicide attempts in women

Embargoed until 04 June 2009

Sexual abuse in childhood damages women far more than men and could account for just over a quarter of suicide attempts in women, according to new research.

Professor Paul Bebbington, an epidemiologist and social psychiatrist at the Department of Mental Health Services, University College London, told the Annual Meeting of the Royal College of Psychiatrists in Liverpool that 27 per cent of suicide attempts in women had their roots in childhood sexual abuse.

He told delegates: “Here you have a not uncommon event and it has a major effect. It means that women can get tipped into thinking of suicide. If you removed sexual abuse there would be 27 per cent fewer suicide attempts among women. Sexual abuse will always be around, so it’s a bit of a daft figure, but it underlines the importance of abuse in the plethora of suicidal attempts and thoughts of suicide.”

Professor Bebbington’s research was based on data from the 2000 National Psychiatric Morbidity Survey. His analysis found that sexual abuse was three times more common in women than men – some 1.6 per cent of men report sexual abuse, compared to 5.2 per cent of women.

Women attempt to kill themselves more often than men (3.5 per cent of women compared to 5.1 per cent of women) and the number of suicide attempts attributable to sexual abuse was stronger in women than men.

Professor Bebbington told Annual Meeting delegates that sexual abuse in childhood made women far more likely than men to attempt suicide. He cited research studies showing that women react to trauma more strongly than men, perhaps accounting for the strong link between sexual abuse and suicide.

He said: “Women are exposed to more sexual abuse than men, but it maybe that more men resist it. Sexual abuse messes up your life. People who have been sexually abused have low self esteem, ironically blame themselves for the abuse, and all their levels of confidence about all sorts of things are reduced.

“Lowering your self esteem like that is associated with all sorts of mood symptoms and these are the bed out of which arises suicidal ideation. A proportion of those will then go on to attempt suicide and of those some will be successful.”

Professor Bebbington urged fellow psychiatrists to deal with the issue of sexual abuse in a more forceful way.  He said that finding out whether a patient had been sexually abused opened up the possibility of treatment, as there were specific ways a psychiatrist could intervene and help.

“The patient may have post-traumatic stress disorder and you can treat that; they may have low self esteem and you can address that too and you might make life better for that person and they will be less inclined to think of suicide.”

For further information, please contact:
Sarah Nevins
Press & Social Media Officer
Telephone: 020 3701 2543
Claire McLoughlin
Media & Communications Manager 
Telephone: 020 3701 2544
Out of hours contact number: 07860 755896



Annual Meeting of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, BT Convention Centre, Liverpool, 2 -5 June 2009


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