Teen suicide prevention week: 18 – 25 February 2007
Childhood Abuse Raises the Risk of Suicide in Teens
Recent research has indicated that people who have experienced abuse in childhood are more likely to attempt or commit suicide than those people who hadn’t. People who experience several traumatic events in childhood may be 30 times as likely to attempt suicide at some point in their life – either in childhood or as an adult – as those with a carefree past, researchers estimate. Those who reported being emotionally abused are 5 times more likely to attempt suicide; those whose parents divorced or separated during childhood are twice as likely to attempt suicide. “Adverse childhood experiences have serious long-term consequences” says researcher Shanta R. Dube in Atlanta, Georgia.
The rate of teen suicide in South Africa is on the increase with suicide accounting for 9% of all teen deaths. While mental health professionals have long suspected there to be a link between abuse and suicide, this research shows the trends strongly and could provide some hope for early warning and detection of children and teens at risk.
The South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG), the largest mental health NGO in South Africa, designed and runs the only teen suicide prevention programme in school – “Suicide Shouldn’t be a Secret”. This programme is aimed at learners and educators to teach them to identify the early warning signs of depression and suicide. The message? Suicide is preventable.
According to SADAG Development Manager, Roshni Parbhoo, many learners who are identified during these talks by counsellors as teens at risk, have stories of abuse or neglect to tell. “Abuse hampers a child’s emotional development and can seriously affect his way of seeing himself and the world around him”, says Parbhoo.
Children who experience maltreatment are not only at increased risk for adverse health effects and behaviours as adults – including smoking, alcoholism, drug abuse, eating disorders and suicide but maltreatment during infancy or early childhood can cause physical, mental and emotional problems including ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), panic disorder and depression.
Possibly the cruelest and most destructive forms of child abuse is one of the hardest to identify. Emotional abuse, which accounts for approximately 8% of child abuse cases, is defined as “the systematic tearing down of another human being”. Emotional abuse attacks the child’s self-concept and he comes to see himself as unlovable and unworthy of love and affection. Children who are repeatedly shamed, humiliated, terrorized or rejected suffer at least as much, if not more, than if they had been abused physically – bruises you can see, emotional damage often gets far less empathy and understanding.
“Children who are neglected or emotionally abused by parents are frequently incredibly withdrawn and often our counsellors notice them during the suicide prevention presentation”, says Parbhoo. Children who are emotionally abused and neglected show tell-tale signs – if you know what to look for. “There are no marks or bruises but the pain and damage is definitely there”, says high school educator and SADAG’s senior counsellor Janine Shamos. “Emotional abuse leaves deep scars that are no less destructive because they are hidden”.
Insecurity, poor self-esteem, destructive behaviour, behaving in an angry or cruel way, social withdrawal, poor skills development, alcohol or drug abuse, difficulty forming relationships, and depression and suicide are all consequences of emotional abuse.
Suicide is the second leading – and fastest growing – cause of death in South Africa’s 15 – 24 year old age group. Twenty-two people commit suicide every day in South Africa. SADAG is working hard to reduce the number of suicides in the country and this research is vital in that struggle. “South Africa’s teens are in crisis and it’s only by understanding what puts them at risk for suicide that inroads into suicide prevention can be made”, says Parbhoo. “If we could identify emotional abuse early, stop it from continuing and get these kids help immediately, it would go a long way to reduce the risk of suicide”.
Types of emotional abuse:
Rejecting: parents who lack the ability to bond, reject the child, call him names, tell him he is worthless and unwanted, as a baby, he is not held and cuddled, as he grows may become the family scapegoat
Ignoring: show no interest in the child, don’t express affection or even recognize the child’s presence, emotionally unavailable
Terrorizing: one child is singled out and criticized and punished constantly, ridicule, threatened with abandonment or withdrawal of food etc
Isolating: a parent may isolating him from peers, not allowing him to engage in social activities, may restrict the child to his bedroom after school and make him eat alone
Corrupting: parents permit, and sometimes encourage, children to smoke, use alcohol and drugs, to witness or participate in criminal activities like theft, assault and prostitution
For further information contact:
SADAG 011 783 1474
Roshni Parbhoo 011 783 1645
Janine Shamos 082 3389666