Child abuse, suicide and grief

Child abuse can have profound effects on a child that persist into adulthood. The trauma and grief associated with child abuse can result in an increased risk of suicide, or suicide attempts, in later life.

Abuse in childhood can create massive and multiple losses, including: loss of innocence; loss of trust; loss of a sense of security; loss of self-worth; loss of self-confidence; loss of the ability to learn; loss of safety; and, in some cases, loss of the will to live.

Grief is a normal response to loss, and the burden of grief for children who have been sexually, emotionally or physically abused is immense. Acts of abuse perpetrated by adults and older children can take away many important things that a child needs to grow and develop in a healthy way. This damage can occur regardless of whether the abusive acts are isolated events or repeated over time.

In most cases, children who are abused are told by the perpetrator not to tell anyone about what has happened.  They may be threatened with severe punishment if they do report or reveal the abuse – or the person who has committed it.1

Even when children do disclose abuse, they are not always believed by others around them, including family.   Investigations and legal systems can be frightening for children and may add to the trauma of their initial experiences.

Childhood abuse and suicide

Childhood abuse can take the form of sexual abuse, physical abuse, verbal or emotional abuse, and neglect. Generally, girls are more likely to suffer sexual abuse than boys. Boys, however, are most likely to experience forms of physical abuse which can include sexual abuse.

Children who have been sexually abused may go on to think about ending their own life. Research suggests that adult survivors of child sexual abuse are three times more likely to attempt suicide than those who have not experienced abuse. Those who have experienced physical and/or emotional abuse are also about two and a half times more likely to try to take their own life.2

The younger a child is when abuse against them starts, the more frequently the abuse tends to occur. The circumstances of the abuse, and whether it is carried out by a family member, a trusted friend or a stranger, all contribute to the overall impact and ongoing consequences of that abuse. Up to one in three adults may have experienced abuse as a child, but there may also be under-reporting of these numbers.

Other effects of childhood abuse

Abuse in childhood has complex and far-reaching effects on the physical and emotional health and wellbeing of a child and the adult they become. Although some adults are able to recover from abuse in their childhood, many find the abuse profoundly alters their lives.

Research is now revealing the complex effects of abuse on the structure and function of a child’s developing brain. Although it will be different for each individual, children may develop problematic behavioural patterns that can lead to poor attention at school and difficulty learning or focussing.3 This can create social disadvantages that may persist throughout their lives – for example, women in jail report higher rates of childhood sexual abuse and attempted suicide than the general population.4 The impacts of these disadvantages can also continue between generations, perpetuating a cycle of abuse.

Girls who have been abused experience a higher rate of teenage pregnancy than their peers. Survivors of both genders are more likely to engage in substance abuse and impulsive behaviour, which in turn may contribute to an increased suicide risk. Another outcome of abuse may be the development of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which can continue to affect the child into adulthood. Amongst children who have been abused there is an increased risk of developing mental disorders such as major depression, anxiety disorder or bipolar disorder. Those who are abused often have low self-esteem, which can persist into adulthood and create difficulties in developing trusting or intimate relationships. They may also be more likely to find themselves in further abusive situations.

The health of child abuse survivors can also be impacted in the future with an increased risk of chronic illnesses such as heart disease, chronic lung disease and cancer. Victims of child abuse may also struggle to find the resources to cope with the increased financial and social stresses of life as they age and their responsibilities grow.

In Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, there is a high incidence of institutional sexual abuse that has followed their removal from family, country and culture. The damaging effects of this are ongoing and have spanned generations.

Grief following the suicide of someone with a history of childhood abuse

Grief following the suicide of someone who has been abused as a child may be particularly difficult to deal with. For someone who has also experienced childhood abuse, there can be many difficult emotions around their own trauma.  Seeing the repercussions of abuse in someone else’s life may remind them of their own experiences, sometime bringing back strong negative emotional responses. For non-abusive parents or carers of the person who has died the loss can be devastating. They may feel guilty that they failed to protect their child or stop the abuse, and angry at a community or system that allowed it to happen.

Adding to this is the further burden of the stigma and taboo that carries. Where victims of abuse die by suicide there can be additional trauma due to the complexities of blame and culpability. Even where it is irrational or unreasonable, self-recrimination is frequently experienced by those grieving the suicide of a victim of abuse and these negative thoughts and feelings can be crippling. Acknowledging non-abusive carers’ loss without judgement will help them to better deal with their grief.

What can you do to help?

Prevention of childhood abuse

Programs of support for first time parents and sexual abuse education in schools can reduce the risk of abuse occurring. Community child protection services are critical and must be resourced to ensure that children are appropriately protected, and cycles of inter-generational disadvantage are broken.

Early recognition and early reporting of childhood abuse

Although abuse often goes un-noticed, there are signs to look out for, and you can find more information here: https://www.childwelfare.gov/pubPDFs/signs.pdf The support of trusted family or others can help to strengthen resilience and offer coping strategies that will reduce any suicide risk.

Believing the child

Listening and communicating without judgment is a vital part of supporting survivors of childhood abuse. Many survivors have spoken of not being believed when they reported their abuse to loved ones or authorities, especially if the offending happened many years before.  This can be particularly damaging, as it can take survivors many years before they feel ready to speak about their trauma.

 A child needs to understand that they were not to blame.

It is not uncommon for those who have been abused to blame themselves. Self-blame can include guilt at failing to stop the abuser, failing to seek help, or failing to protect siblings. Those who have been sexually abused may also feel a sense of shame that they participated in sexual behaviour. Self-blame has been linked to developing more severe disorders including PTSD, depression and anxiety.

Mental health professional support by professionals trained in dealing with trauma will also assist in identifying, diagnosing and treating any underlying mental health disorders that occur as a result of child abuse.

Community education

Every section of the community has a role to play in responding to child abuse.  Each of us must be aware of the potential for child abuse and take responsibility for the safety of the children within our communities.

The understanding and support of the community when someone has suicided as a result of child abuse can determine how well a bereaved person will recover.

Resources

Police: phone 000 if you’re worried about your safety or a child’s safety at any time.

Lifeline: phone 131 114 – 24 hours, 7 days a week.

Kids Helpline: phone 1800 551 800 – 24 hours, 7 days a week.

In South Australia call the SA Child Abuse Report Line on 131 478 – 24 hours, 7 days a week.

Bravehearts: phone 1800 272 831 – 8.30 am-4.30 pm, Monday to Friday AEST. Bravehearts’ national Information and Support Line can be accessed by anyone wanting information or support relating to child sexual assault and exploitation.

National Sexual Assault, Domestic Family Violence Counselling Service: phone 1800RESPECT or 1800 737 732 – 24 hours, 7 days a week.

References 

  1. Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, Final Report 2017
  2. Angelakis I, Gillespie E L, Panagioti M. Childhood maltreatment and adult suicidality: a comprehensive. systematic review with meta-analysis.  Psychological Medicine, Cambridge 2019;1
  3. Nemeroff, C.B. Paradise lost: the neurobiological and clinical consequences of child abuse and neglect. Neuron 89, 892–909. 2016
  4. DeCou C.R., Lynch S. M., DeHart D. D., J Belknap J. Evaluating the Association Between Childhood Sexual Abuse and Attempted Suicide Across the Lifespan: Findings from a Nationwide Study of Women in Jail. Psychological Services 2016, Vol. 13, No. 3, 254–260

Page last updated: 19 June, 2021