Teenagers who have ever been sexually abused appear to have a higher suicide risk than their peers, but their families may be able to make a difference, a large study suggests.
Researchers found that among nearly 84 000 Minnesota adolescents, those with a history of childhood sexual abuse were much more likely than their peers to have contemplated or attempted suicide.
However, the study also found that several protective factors seemed to buffer abused teenagers against this risk - most importantly, a sense of "family connectedness." Teenagers who said they could talk to their parents about their problems, for example, or who felt their families generally cared about them were less likely to be suicidal.
Risk can be reduced
"The findings suggest that there might be ways to lower the suicide risk among young people with a history of sexual abuse," Dr Marla E. Eisenberg, the lead researcher on the study, told Reuters Health.
She and her colleagues at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis report the findings in the Journal of Pediatrics.
The researchers evaluated survey data from 83 731 students in the 6th, 9th and 12th grades. Overall, 4% said they'd been sexually abused by someone unrelated to them, 1.3% said a family member had abused them, and 1.4% reported both forms of sexual abuse.
In general, the students with a history of sexual abuse were more likely than their peers to say they'd thought about or attempted suicide at some point. At greatest risk were those who said they'd been abused by both a family member and someone outside the family; more than half of this group said they'd tried to kill themselves.
Positive relationships help
However, having positive relationships with adults seemed to reduce some of this risk, the study found. Abused teens who said they had teachers or other adults in their lives who cared about them were less likely to report suicidal behaviour.
The most important protective factor was a sense of family connectedness - which the study measured by asking teens the extent to which they felt their families cared about and understood them, and whether they could discuss their problems with their parents.
"If connections with family members, teachers or other school personnel, or other adults in the community were strong, young people had a much lower risk of suicide, even if they were particularly vulnerable due to sexual abuse," Eisenberg said.
The implication, she and her colleagues write, is that strengthening these connections for abused teenagers could help lower their suicide risk.
According to Eisenberg, some potential ways to improve family connections could be to encourage parents to listen to their children's problems and talk to them in a "non-judgmental" way, or to simply spend more time with them.
SOURCE: Journal of Pediatrics, November 2007. – (Reuters Health)