April 18, 2018

Disclosure of Childhood Abuse Predicts Risk of Suicidal Ideation

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Philip Baiden, PhD

The University of Texas at Arlington


Suicide has been identified as a major public health issue and, according to the World Health Organization, over 800,000 people die annually as a result of suicide. Historically, scholars have focused on investigating the link between childhood abuse and suicidal ideation. However, in recent years, some scholars have begun investigating what happens to survivors of childhood abuse who disclosed the abuse. Disclosures surrounding childhood abuse, particularly childhood sexual abuse, are extremely complex. Even though it is generally believed that individuals benefit from telling someone about their childhood sexual abuse, many survivors of childhood sexual abuse either delay or withhold disclosing the abuse.

My colleagues and I conducted a study to investigate the effect of social support and the disclosure of childhood abuse on suicidal ideation among Canadian adults who were abused when they were children. Our hope is that the findings can be used to improve the mental health needs of adults who come forward following an abuse. We examined data from Statistics Canada’s 2012 Canadian Community Health Survey–Mental Health on 9,076 adults who experienced at least one childhood abuse event before age 16 years.

We found that only 6% of Canadian adults who were abused when they were children disclosed the abuse to someone from child protection services before age 16 years. Those who disclosed the abuse were more likely to experience suicidal ideation. However, those with adequate social support and a trustworthy person to turn to for advice when having problems were less likely to experience suicidal ideation. The findings also indicated that those who experienced severe physical and sexual abuse before age 16 years were more likely to experience suicidal ideation.

These outcomes add to recent discussions surrounding sexual abuse and harassment cases. Disclosures that are met with nonsupportive, nonprotective, hostile, disbelieving, or dismissive responses could be traumatic and lead to further long-term mental health problems. Reasons why some children do not disclose sexual abuse at the time it occurs could be related to not having an opportunity, feelings about the abuser, fear of what will happen, and fear of others’ reactions. From a clinical perspective, disclosure-based treatments and therapeutic interventions such as crisis intervention therapy, cognitive-behavioral therapy, and expressive therapies may be helpful in treating survivors of childhood abuse.

In conclusion, the results of this study suggest that whereas social support is a protective factor against suicidal ideation among individuals with a history of childhood abuse, disclosure of childhood abuse to child protection services increases the risk of suicidal ideation. Social support interventions that are effective in improving individuals’ perception that support is available to them may help reduce suicidal ideation among those with a history of childhood abuse.

Financial disclosure:Dr Baiden has no relevant personal financial relationships to report.​

Category: Suicide , Women
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Related to “Effect of Social Support and Disclosure of Child Abuse on Adult Suicidal Ideation: Findings From a Population-Based Study”

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