Childhood abuse increases risk of suicidal thoughts among adults

Adults who were physically abused during childhood are more likely than their non-abused peers to have suicidal thoughts, according to a new study from University of Toronto researchers.

The study, published online this month in the journal Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior, found that approximately one-third of adults who were physically abused in childhood had seriously considered taking their own life.  These rates were five times higher than adults who were not physically abused in childhood. The findings suggest that children exposed to physical abuse may be at greater risk for suicidal behaviours in adulthood.

“This research provides important new knowledge about the enduring effects of abuse in childhood,” said lead author Esme Fuller-Thomson, Sandra Rotman Chair at University of Toronto’s Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work and Department of Family and Community Medicine. “The findings have important clinical implications for healthcare providers, suggesting the need to screen for suicidal ideation among adults who have experienced childhood physical abuse and highlighting the importance of providing preventive treatment to childhood abuse survivors.”

Investigators examined gender specific differences among a sample of 6,642 adults, of whom 7.7 per cent reported that they had been physically abused before the age of 18. They found that a strong association between childhood physical abuse and subsequent suicidal behaviours remained even after taking into account other known risk factors, such as adverse childhood conditions, health behaviours and psycho-social stressors. 

“This study is unique in that it stratified all the analyses by gender,” Fuller-Thomson said. “This method revealed some gender-based variation in the degree to which controlling for different groups of factors attenuated the abuse–suicidal ideation relation.”

For example, adjusting for adverse childhood conditions reduced the association between abuse and suicidal thoughts to a greater extent for men than for women, while the reverse was true when controlling for psychosocial stressors and chronic illnesses. These findings underline the importance of using gender-specific analysis, Fuller-Thomson said.

The finding that the association between childhood physical abuse and suicidal ideation was strong and significant even when controlling for current mood and anxiety disorders and 12-month depression was surprising, given the close relationship between mental health and suicidality, said Fuller-Thomson.

Previous studies have theorized that habituation to high levels of pain and fear through childhood abuse may contribute to adults’ ability to inflict injury or harm on themselves. Recent research suggests suicide may have developmental origins relating to abuse – that physical or sexual abuse may lead to changes in the stress response in the brain which increase the risk of suicidal thoughts and behaviour.

“One important avenue for future research is to investigate the bio-psycho-social mechanisms through which childhood physical abuse may translate into suicidal behaviors,” said co-author Tobi Baker, a former graduate student at the University of Toronto.

Science news reference: 

Evidence Supporting an Independent Association between Childhood Physical Abuse and Lifetime Suicidal Ideation. Esme Fuller-Thomson PhD, Tobi M. Baker MSW, Sarah Brennenstuhl MSW. Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior. 11 APR 2012. DOI: 10.1111/j.1943-278X.2012.00089.x

Science news source: 

University of Toronto