Children exposed to abuse are more likely to develop suicidal personality traits

An article published in Journal of Clinical Medicine reveals that child abuse increases some determinants of risk factors in adolescent suicidal behavior. According to this study, people who have suffered child abuse are more likely to exhibit personality traits that are associated with intense anger, impulsiveness, and emotional dysregulation. In addition, they tend to be exposed to more stressful situations in their lives. These new stressors and emotional dysregulation would be factors that could lead to suicidal behavior in adolescents.

The study is led by Professor Lourdes Fananas of the Faculty of Biology at the University of Barcelona, ​​the UB Institute of Biomedicine (IBUB) and the Center for Biomedical Research in the Mental Health Network (CIBERSAM). Researcher Laia Marques-Feixa, also a member of these institutions, was the first author of the article. Conducted in collaboration with CIBERSAM EPI-Young Stress Group, the study relies on the participation of teams from the University of Lleida, the Benito Menni Mental Health Complex (Sant Boi de Llobregat), Hospital Clínic de Barcelona, ​​Gregorio Marañón University Hospital (Madrid), University Puerta de Hierro Hospital (Madrid), Araba University Hospital – Santiago Apostol (Vitoria) and the Oriental Adolescent Day Hospital in Gava.

Suicide in young adults: a global health problem

In Spain, suicide is already the leading cause of death among young people. Although suicide deaths in adults are more common in men than in women, women are more likely to commit suicide and non-suicide (self-harm, for example) than men. As a worrying figure, during the pandemic caused by COVID-19, the number of hospitalizations of women between the ages of twelve and eighteen with self-injurious behavior has skyrocketed.

The new study focuses on the analysis of 187 children and adolescents aged seven to seventeen, with and without mental disorders. Researchers analyzed their experiences of child abuse, recent stressful life episodes, and some personality traits and risk of suicidal behavior.

Adolescence is a period of high emotional vulnerability and it is estimated that 70% of mental disorders occur during this time. The adolescent’s brain, she continues, is undergoing a process of maturation, and this process may include difficulties in self-control and higher impulsivity and emotional instability, which are crucial elements in the development of certain risky behaviors.

Professor Lourdes Fananas, Member of the Department of Evolutionary Biology, Ecology and Environmental Sciences at UB and Principal Investigator in the CIBERSAM Group

“This is also a period full of changes (family dynamism, new groups with classmates, new challenges and activities, etc.), which may include increasing stressful situations for young people,” adds Fananas.

In addition, according to researcher Laia Marques-Feixa (UB-IBUB-CIBERSAM), “when there is a relationship trauma during childhood – such as psychological, physical or sexual abuse or neglect – three main developmental abilities can be altered: emotional regulation , identity and interpersonal connection “. If a person reaches adolescence without consolidating a good foundation in these skills, this person may have more difficulties due to the lack of solid psychological resources to deal with challenges, conflicts and daily difficulties that arise in the course of our lives “, concludes an expert.

Young psychopathology: the journey to adolescence

Life experience, in addition to genetic predisposition, is a crucial element in determining our personality. In psychology, experts talk about personality disorders when the way one understands, thinks and treats the environment and oneself is inflexible and maladaptive, so all this creates psychological discomfort and a deterioration in quality of life.

The study did not establish a direct link between child abuse and the ability to express suicidal behavior in young people. However, the findings show that suffering from child abuse increases the risk factors that can lead to suicidal behavior in adolescents.

“Our research shows that in order to reduce suicidal behavior in adolescents, we need to work on strategies to regulate emotions, as well as reduce the potential exposure to new stressful events (change of home, battles, expulsion from school, etc.). ), especially with regard to those with child abuse data, ”said Laya Marquez-Feisha.

Since adolescence is the period in which the foundations of our personality are built, it is difficult to diagnose these disorders among young people. “In addition, there are some commonalities between different personality disorders, and this condition makes it difficult for us to make a specific diagnosis,” said expert Jörg Moya-Igeras of the University of Lleida and SIBERSAM.

Therefore, he continues, approaching this issue from a more dimensional point of view – with transdiagnostic personality traits over a continuous period of time, such as emotional dysregulation – may be a more useful strategy than categorical classification (current disorder or absent) . ) “.

More investment in public health to improve prevention

The SURVIVE consortium, an initiative promoted by the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) of the European Union, the Carlos III Health Institute and the Ministry of Science, Innovation and Universities, is currently bringing together several institutions and hospitals to study suicide frequency, risk assessment and developing intervention and prevention strategies.

Promoting more sophisticated and longitudinal research – with more to look at – will be a key element in identifying factors in predicting adolescent suicide and improving prevention strategies with all health and social stakeholders.

In this context, the first step in preventing suicidal behavior “would be to invest more money in prevention, especially for the young population. This means that we must support families so that these children can grow up in a healthy and safe atmosphere, “the team said.

Second, we need good detection and early intervention in children and adolescents who show emotional or behavioral difficulties, as experts warn. Although there is a code for suicide risk, public health needs to offer a wide network of professionals, services and resources to help as soon as possible. “Since most people who commit suicide have a related mental disorder, the most important thing to start with should be this,” experts said.

Despite the high demand for these services from the population in recent years, the proportion of public mental health professionals in Spain is only 6 per 100,000 people. These figures are tripling in Europe. “Therefore, to solve this shameful deficit, we need to start investing in mental health, especially in children and adolescents, from various health services, education, justice, etc.,” the research team concluded.


Reference in the magazine:

Marquis-Feisha, L., et al. (2021) Risk of suicidal behavior in children and adolescents exposed to abuse: the mediating role of borderline personality traits and recent stressful events in life. Journal of Clinical Medicine.

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