Every 40 seconds, someone loses their life to suicide.
There is profound hopelessness for all who contemplate ending their lives. That despair is even greater for those who do take their own life. And then there is the pain for those they leave behind. We need to find ways to support anyone who is touched by the anguish of suicide. This includes a more informed and compassionate understanding of what leads someone to such a desperate place.
October 10th is World Mental Health Day organized by the World Federation for Mental Health. The focus is on working together to prevent suicide. We’re invited to participate by taking “40 seconds of action” to raise awareness of the scale of suicide around the world and the role that each of us can play in the prevention of it. My contribution is to bring attention to the link between childhood trauma and suicide.
The Childhood Trauma and Suicide Link
In the 1990s, researchers Vincent Felitti and Robert Anda developed a ground-breaking study of over 17000 participants identifying the association between adverse childhood experiences and challenges experienced as an adult.
This study is known as the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACE Study) Felitti, 2002. They began by identifying ten specific types of common childhood trauma that included physical, emotional, and sexual abuse, physical and emotional neglect as well as family dysfunction including divorce, addiction, violence, or incarceration.
Researchers then surveyed participants to find out how many of these types of trauma were experienced in their childhood. They also documented how often various social and well as physical or mental health issues occurred for each participant.
The information they gathered from this extensive survey provides us with a clear picture of the negative impacts of childhood trauma - including the significant connection it has to the risk of suicide.
From this study, we can see that adverse childhood experiences are vastly more common than previously thought. And these adverse experiences have a powerful and cumulative negative impact on adult health. Participants who experienced more childhood trauma report increased rates of depression, substance misuse, unhealthy coping behaviours, physical health concerns, and suicide attempts.
Since the ACEs Study was completed, research has continued to make the connection between early childhood trauma and challenges experienced in adulthood. It’s really transformed our understanding of the relationship between ACEs and struggles in adulthood. Martie Thompson and her team of researchers have recently published an article looking at the specific connection between adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and suicidal behaviours in adulthood. What they demonstrate in their research is crucial to the discussion of suicide prevention. Here is a big takeaway from this research:
Adverse childhood experiences increase the risk of suicidal ideation as well as suicide attempts.
Here are some of the stats that research demonstrates:
Compared to those with no ACEs, the risk of seriously considering suicide or attempting suicide as an adult is three times higher among those who experience three or more categories outlined in the ACE Study. Thompson et al, 2018
People who reported experiencing physical, sexual, or emotional abuse were three to five times more likely to attempt suicide at some point in their lives. Thompson et al, 2018
The risk of a suicide attempt is 30 times higher for adults with an ACE score of 7 or more. That same number of ACEs increases the risk of suicide by 51 times when someone is still an adolescent. Dube et al, 2001
And this additional statistic should make us pay attention to the impact that trauma has on the experience of hopelessness and despair about living:
Almost two-thirds (64%) of suicide attempts among adults were attributable to adverse childhood experiences. And 80% of suicide attempts during childhood or adolescence were attributed to ACEs. Stevens, 2013
The Childhood Trauma, Substance Misuse, and Suicide Link
It is also essential to make the connection between substance use disorders, trauma, and suicide. The ACE Study also makes a strong correlation between early childhood trauma and the use of mood-altering substances, likely as a way to cope with the challenges that trauma brings.
The statistics regarding the association between the number of ACEs and later substance misuse show some very significant correlations. Felitti & Anda, 2009
For people who had experienced 4 or more ACEs when compared to someone with an ACE score of 0:
They are 7 times more likely to have an Alcohol Use Disorder
They are 10 times more likely to have injected drugs
This graph highlights some telling comparisons:
Here’s the bottom-line: if we want to do more to prevent suicide, we need to do more to address adverse childhood experiences. That means more support for families who are going through difficult things. That means more therapeutic help for children and teens who have had traumatic experiences. That means educating people about the connection between early childhood trauma and the despair and hopelessness that leads to suicidal behaviours. It also means we need to get more help for those who are self-medicating the pain of early trauma with alcohol and other drugs.
Suicide prevention means more support for children, teens, and adults who have experienced childhood trauma.
40 Seconds of Action
We all need to be taking time to address this crucial issue. We all need to find ways to be involved in our own “40 seconds of action”. You’ve already taken time to read through this article – thank you!
And here are additional ways to take even more action for suicide prevention.
Take steps to increase awareness of the significance of suicide as a global concern.
Have a conversation that helps reduce the stigma associated with suicide.
Learn more about what can be done to prevent suicide.
Reach out to someone who is struggling to let them know they are not alone.
Offer support to those who have lost a loved one to suicide.
Share information about World Mental Health Day and suicide prevention on your own social media platform.
Share this post to raise awareness of the connection between early childhood trauma and suicide.