Childhood Maltreatment and Risk of Suicide Attempt: A Nationally Representative Study




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Background: Previous research suggests that various types of childhood maltreatment frequently co-occur and confer risk for attempting suicide. However, it is unknown whether the effect of childhood maltreatment on this risk occurs through diverse, specific mechanisms or through a generalized liability, independently of psychopathology. Although these competing explanations have different implications for intervention, they have never been evaluated empirically.

Method: Structural equation modeling was used to examine the effect of different types of childhood maltreatment (ie, sexual abuse, physical and emotional abuse and neglect) on suicide attempt risk, and on age at first suicide attempt and repeated suicide attempts among attempters. Analyses controlled for demographic characteristics and DSM-IV Axis I and Axis II disorders. Data were drawn from a nationally representative survey of US adults, the 2004–2005 National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions (N = 34,653).

Results: Childhood maltreatment was associated with an increased risk for attempting suicide and an earlier age at first suicide attempt among attempters, independently of psychopathology (P < .005). These associations operated mainly through the latent variable representing effects shared by the different types of childhood maltreatment, although sexual abuse had an additional, direct effect on the risk of suicide attempt. Childhood maltreatment types were not significantly associated with a history of multiple suicide attempts (all P values > .05).

Conclusions: The association between childhood maltreatment and suicide attempt operates mainly through a single broad liability, suggesting that the mechanisms underlying this dimension should be considered as an important therapeutic target for suicide prevention.

J Clin Psychiatry 2015;76(7):916–923