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Psychopathology, childhood sexual abuse and other childhood adversities: relative links to subsequent suicidal behaviour in the US

  • B. E. MOLNAR (a1), L. F. BERKMAN (a1) and S. L. BUKA (a1)
  • DOI:
  • Published online: 01 August 2001

Background. Research shows that psychopathology, child sexual abuse and other childhood adversities are risk factors for suicide. However, few have investigated their joint and independent roles in the pursuit of a reliable, predictive model of suicidal behaviour.

Methods. Data are from the National Comorbidity Survey (N = 5877), a nationally representative study of prevalence, risk factors, and social consequences of psychiatric disorders in the US. Discrete time survival analysis and population attributable risk methodologies were utilized.

Results. Among those sexually abused as children, odds of suicide attempts were 2–4 times higher among women and 4–11 times higher among men, compared with those not abused, controlling for other adversities. Odds ratios were reduced but most remained statistically significant after adjusting for lifetime psychiatric illnesses preceding suicide attempts. In the same predictive equation, 79% of serious suicide attempts among women could be attributed to psychiatric disorders while 12% was attributable to rape and 7% to molestation. The highest probability of a first attempt was during early adolescence for those who were sexually abused and had a lifetime disorder, but it was 8–12 years older for those sexually abused without any disorders.

Conclusions. In the US, a strong association exists between child sexual abuse and suicidal behaviour, mediated by psychopathology. There is a substantial proportion of suicide risk attributable to child sexual abuse beyond the presence of psychopathology and other adversities. From a clinical standpoint, abuse survivors represent a high-risk population for suicidal behaviour. Further research into this preventable antecedent of suicide attempts is necessary.

Corresponding author
Address for correspondence: Dr Beth E. Molnar, Harvard School of Public Health, Department of Maternal and Child Health, 677 Huntington Avenue, Bldg. SPH-3, Boston, MA 02115, USA.
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Psychological Medicine
  • ISSN: 0033-2917
  • EISSN: 1469-8978
  • URL: /core/journals/psychological-medicine
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