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

Childhood adversities are ‘powerful predictors’ of suicide

Embargoed until 01 July 2010

Children who experience physical or sexual abuse, or other adversities such as the death of a parent or family violence, are at greater risk of suicide in later life, according to new research. And the greater the number of different adversities a child experiences, the more they are at risk.

Researchers, writing in the July issue of the British Journal of Psychiatry, describe childhood adversities as a “powerful predictor” of suicidal behaviour.

The team, led by Dr Ronny Bruffaerts from Katholieke Universiteit Leuven in Belgium, examined data from the World Mental Health surveys carried out in 21 countries in Africa, the Americas, Asia and the Pacific, Europe, and the Middle East.

More than 55,000 people from all 21 countries were interviewed about their experiences during childhood. They were asked if they had experienced any of the following adversities before the age of 18: physical abuse, sexual abuse, neglect, parental death, parent divorce, other parental loss, family violence, physical illness, and financial adversity.

The researchers found that many of the people in the study had experienced adversity: 12% had experienced the death of a parent, 8% had been the victim of physical abuse and 7% of family violence.

Almost 3% of people interviewed said they had attempted suicide, and 9% said they had thought about killing themselves (known as suicide ideation). Among those who had tried to kill themselves, nearly a third (29%) had been the victim of physical abuse, one in four (25%) had experienced family violence, and one in six (15%) had been sexually abused.

Dr Bruffaerts said: “We found that being exposed to many different adversities during childhood increases the risk of suicidal behaviour. Sexual or physical abuses during childhood are particularly strong risk factors for the onset of suicidal behaviour in adulthood. Even controlling for a broad set of variables, there was at least a threefold increase in suicide attempt and suicide ideation among people with a history of sexual or physical abuse.”

Dr Bruffaerts concluded: “Across the world, great emphasis is placed on the prevention of suicide. Our study shows a direct association between the number of adversities a person experiences in childhood and the risk of suicide. Therefore, identifying those families at risk of problems, and offering help, may be a way of decreasing suicide around the world.”

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Bruffaerts R, Demyttenaere K, Borges G, Haro JH, Chui WT, Hwang I, Karam EG, Kessler RC, Sampson N, Alonso J, Andrade LH, Angermeyer M, Benjet C, Bromet E, de Girolamo G, de Graaf R, Florescu S, Gureje O, Horiguchi I, Hu C, Kovess V, Levinson D, Posada-Villa J, Sagar R, Scott K, Tsang A, Vassilev SM, Williams DR and Nock MK (2010) Childhood adversities as risk factors for onset and persistence of suicidal behaviour, British Journal of Psychiatry, 197: 20-27


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