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The Teen Suicide Risk Factor You May Not Know About

By Carol Church, Writer, Family Album

Reviewed by Kate Fogarty, PhD, Department of Family, Youth, and Community Sciences, University of Florida

This post is in honor of Sexual Assault Awareness Month. Learn more at the National Sexual Violence Resource Center Facebook page.

Talk to any parent of a teenager, and he or she will probably admit to having a few fears and worries about that child that keep him or her up at night. It could be concerns about unsafe driving habits, worry about college applications, anxiety about everything that happens on the Internet, or anything in between. But there’s one fear that’s the ultimate nightmare for any parent, though it may seem remote for many. It’s the fear that one’s well-loved son or daughter might take his or her own life.

Sexual Assault Increases Suicide Risk

Tragically, suicide is the third most common cause of adolescent death, making it a major public health issue in the United States. And for every teen who commits suicide, many more attempt it–sending a message that something in their lives is seriously wrong. As parents, it’s important that we understand what may cause teens to be more likely to make a suicidal gesture. One major risk factor you may not be aware of is being a victim of sexual assault.

A recent large study considered the role of sexual assault and other factors in teen suicide attempts. Researchers drew data from a nationally representative survey of more than 30,000 high school students across the country. The teens were asked if they had ever attempted suicide, and if they had ever been forced into sex against their will. Over 7% of teens reported a suicide attempt in the past year (more attempts were by girls than boys—although statistics show that more male teens complete the act). Eleven percent of girls said they’d been forced into sex, compared to about 4% of boys.

Sadly, teens of both sexes with sexual assault histories were at very high risk of attempting suicide. Twenty-seven percent of girls who had been sexually assaulted reported trying suicide in the last year, compared to just over 6% of girls with no such history. The story was similar for boys; 33% of boys who had been assaulted reported suicide attempts, in contrast to just 3.6% of boys with no assault history.

Overweight, Assaulted Boys at Special Risk

This study also considered teen obesity and overweight and its potential effect on suicidality in adolescents. It found that overweight girls were at an increased risk of trying suicide, regardless of whether they had been sexually assaulted. Yet overweight boys were not at increased risk—unless they had also been sexually assaulted, in which case they were at especially high risk of suicide attempt.

These authors point out that prevention and programming concerning this issue rarely address boys. The study authors also think male sexual assault victims may be at increased risk for suicide due to intense shame, which may bring them to question their masculinity or sexual identity.

The Role of Parents

These findings give parents an idea of risk factors that may be dangerous to teens. Unfortunately, moms and dads may not realize that their child has been a victim of a sexual assault. Please talk to your teen about sexual assault, and about mental health. Be aware of other risk factors for teen suicide, and of potential warning signs. And if you have any concerns about suicidal thoughts or impulses, please speak to a pediatrician or counselor as soon as possible, or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 . The resources in Further Reading can help.

Further Reading:

Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network

One in Six–Support for male victims of sexual assault and abuse

Preventing Teen Suicide–From WebMD

References:

Anderson, L. M., Hayden, B. M., & Tomasula, J. L. (2014). Sexual Assault, Overweight, and Suicide
Attempts in U.S. Adolescents. Suicide and Life-Threatening Behaviors. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1111/sltb.12148

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2015). Suicide Prevention. http://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/pub/youth_suicide.html

Photo Credits: pink_cotton_candy/iStock/Thinkstock