Teenagers who are victims of neglect, bullying, crime, family violence and sexual exploitation are more likely to self-harm and have suicidal thoughts, a study from King’s College London finds. The report says the picture is complex, with other pre-existing vulnerabilities like low self-esteem or an unsupportive home also playing a part. But it says schemes to stop adolescents becoming victims may lower the risks. Suicide and self-harm are major causes of death among young people worldwide. The researchers examined material gathered from a long-term study of 2,232 twins born in England and Wales in 1994-95. They looked at a wide range of adolescent victimization maltreatment, neglect, sexual victimization, family violence, peer/sibling violence, cyber-victimization, and crime through interviews with participants when they were 18 years old The study found that more than one-third of adolescents had experienced at least one type of severe victimization between the ages of 12 and 18 and 7% had experienced three or more severe types of victimization. Almost a fifth (18.9%) had had some form of self-injurious thoughts and behaviors.
The researchers found that teenagers who were victims were much more likely than their non-victimized peers to have these sorts of thoughts. For each additional victimization type experienced, the risk of contemplating suicide and of self-harming doubled, and the risk of attempting suicide tripled, they found. Half of adolescents exposed to three or more types of victimization had experienced suicidal thoughts and self-harm, and a quarter had attempted suicide. The study acknowledges that “pre-existing vulnerabilities” are a major factor in these thoughts and behaviors. But, after making adjustments for family and individual vulnerabilities, victimized teens still showed an increase in suicidal thoughts (though not suicide attempts) and self-harming. The study says preventing adolescents from becoming victims for example through school-based anti-bullying schemes, family support program and community safety initiatives could help reduce the likelihood of them having suicidal thoughts or self-harming. But it also concludes that effective interventions to prevent premature death in victimized adolescents should also address pre-existing vulnerabilities.
Lead author Jessie Baldwin from King’s College London said: “Our findings showed that victimization in adolescence is an important risk factor for suicidal ideation, self-harm and suicide attempts. “Therefore, adolescents known to have experienced maltreatment, bullying, cyber-victimization, and other forms of victimization should be supported to prevent them from self-harming or taking their own lives. “Because victimized adolescents’ elevated risk of self-injurious thoughts and behaviors was in part due to their pre-existing vulnerabilities, clinicians treating victimized adolescents should address these vulnerabilities. “More broadly, professionals working with young people should appreciate that victimized adolescents have a range of vulnerabilities to poor mental health and self-harm.” The research paper Adolescent victimization and self-injury is published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.