Childhood Trauma and Suicide
© Jane Simington PhD
Numerous studies demonstrate that a history of physical or sexual abuse in childhood can increase the risk of suicide in adolescence and adulthood (Dinwiddie; 2000; Mironova, 2011; Brauser, 2014). One study showed that non-abused children had a lower prevalence of lifetime suicide attempts (6.0%) than did those that were physically abused (11.7%), and as compared to those that were sexually abused (14.8%), or if they experienced both types of abuse (32.2%). This study indicated that the risk of suicide in later life is related to the frequency of abuse during childhood and the identity of the abuser (Nauert, 2016).
Repeated abuse was generally more strongly associated with suicide attempts than a single occurrence of abuse. Furthermore, sexual abuse by an immediate family member (such as a father, stepfather or brother) carried the greatest risk. Abuse perpetrated by an extended family member (uncle or cousin) carried an intermediate risk, while abuse by an unrelated individual (an acquaintance, romantic partner or stranger) carried a weaker risk (Nauert, 2016).
Trauma reconditions the nervous system and can make the person maladaptive to a life of feeling safe and secure. The person experiencing the effects of trauma often does not have a normal baseline for emotion. This means that anger turns instantly to rage, and fear becomes instant terror. Another major symptom of trauma is the invasion of the past into the present. The traumatized person often relives the events and the associated emotions during waking, as pervasive fears and dread, and as nighttime terrors.
A further symptom becoming more widely recognized is the spiritual emptiness experienced following trauma. There is a growing awareness that following trauma, a part of the self may need to be reclaimed. In many Indigenous cultures, it is believed that when trauma happens, a part of the self can stay trapped in the place of trauma. Those who feel they have left a part of themselves at the trauma scene often voice that their lives feel incomplete and empty and that they are plagued by dreams of searching and longing.
This accumulation of symptoms can make the life of someone who has experienced trauma seem unbearable and not worth living. Many who have been traumatized use drugs and alcohol, to numb the responses; others slash and even burn themselves attempting to release the trapped emotions and get an endorphin release which will ease their suffering for a time.
When these attempts no longer work, suicide can become an option, and for some it can seem like the only way out of the constant misery they can no longer cope with.
1). Brauser, D. (2014). Child Sexual Abuse Linked to Suicidal Behavior. Pediatrics. Published Online April 14, 2014.
2). Dinwiddie S, Heath AC, Dunne MP, Bucholz KK, Madden PA, Slutske WS, Bierut LJ, Statham DB, Martin NG. (2000). Early sexual abuse and lifetime psychopathology: a co-twin-control study. Psychological Medicine, Jan;30(1):41-5
3). Mironova P, Rhodes AE, Bethell JM, Tonmyr L, Boyle MH, Wekerle C, Goodman D, Leslie B. (2011). Child physical abuse and suicide-related behavior: A systematic review. Vulnerable Children & Youth Studies, Volume 6, Issue 1, pp. 1–7.
4). Nauert, N. (2016). Suicide Risk Among Abused children. British Journal of Psychiatry, 9.