A team of researchers based at the Karolinska Institute and the University of California, used Sweden’s nationwide registers to investigate associations between childhood adversity and the risk of suicide up to age 24.
A total of 42% of the participants were exposed to at least one indicator of childhood adversity, mainly parental separation (29%) and household receiving public assistance (20%).
During the follow-up, 431 individuals died by suicide, higher than the average suicide rate of 10.6 per 100,000 person years, according to the BMJ.
The authors concluded that this study, published in the BMJ, “provides clear evidence that childhood adversities that are common in the general population are associated with an increased risk for suicide in adolescents and young adults”.
The study involved 548,721 individuals born from 1987 to 1991.
Seven indicators of childhood adversity occurring between birth and age 14 were selected: death in family (suicide analysed separately), parental substance abuse, parental psychiatric disorder, parental criminality, parental separation/single parent household, household receiving public assistance and residential instability (two or more changes in place of residence).
Highest suicide rates per 100,000 were found among those exposed to suicide in the family (34.9), parental psychiatric disorder (27.8) and substantial parental criminality (26.6).
Except for parental separation, all childhood adversity indicators were associated with twice the suicide risk compared with those without experience of childhood adversity.
The researchers pointed out that this is an observational study, so “no firm conclusions can be drawn about cause and effect”.
They said these results “emphasise the importance of understanding the social mechanisms of suicide and the need for effective interventions early in life”.
Commenting on the study, Dr Marc Bush, chief policy advisor at YoungMinds, told The Huffington Post UK: “We know that one in three adult mental health problems are directly related to damaging childhood experiences like abuse, neglect or bereavement, and this report highlights the devastating effect that these can have.
“It’s crucial that children who face adverse experiences and trauma are given fast and effective access to mental health services to prevent serious and complex mental health problems arising later in life.
“It can be difficult for parents or guardians to recognise the signs if their children are struggling to deal with trauma.
“Young people may become withdrawn or display seemingly inappropriate emotional responses such as anger, sadness or challenging behaviour, so it’s important to talk to them about what they’re going through rather than dismiss their behaviour as part of being a teenager.”
Peter Fuggle, director of clinical services, Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families said it’s important to say from the start that adolescent suicide is “thankfully, very rare”. In the ten years between 2005-14, 98 children aged 10-14 committed suicide 0 that’s very roughly one in 250,000 children.
He told HuffPost UK: “This study indicates increased risk of suicide, which is alarming. What we, as a society, need to do is to provide an appropriate response from parents, services and teachers to provide timely support.
“The first, and most obvious thing to say is that we need to communicate to children by listening to them rather than by talking to them.
“We need to be watchful and identify those children in trouble so that they can express their feelings and identify the help they need. There are some excellent programmes for children whose parents are struggling with alcohol, drugs and mental health, and these need to be made easily available to those who need them.
“In particular we need to help schools to identify children who are clearly struggling with their lives. This is the direction of government policy and it is the right thing to be doing.
“If you’re a parent and you’re worried about your child, you should always visit your GP in the first instance. Early identification and intervention is the most important step you can take to help your child.”
For more information:
PAPYRUS HOPELineUK offers confidential, short-term advice and support to young people experiencing thoughts of suicide, or to anyone with concerns about a young person with thoughts of suicide. 0800 068 4141.
YoungMinds Parents helpline offers free, confidential online and telephone support, including information and advice, to any adult worried about the emotional problems, behaviour or mental health of a child or young person up to the age of 25. 0808 802 5544.