U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government, Department of Justice.

The role of psychiatric symptoms and environmental vulnerability factors in explaining the relationship between child maltreatment and suicidality: A prospective investigation

NCJ Number
Journal of Affective Disorders Volume: 276 Dated: 1 November 2020 Pages: 720-731
Date Published
November 2020
12 pages

Although childhood maltreatment has been associated with suicide thoughts and attempts, few longitudinal studies have assessed risk of suicidality into adulthood and fewer have examined potential mediators (psychiatric symptoms and environmental vulnerability factors), so using prospective cohort design, children with documented cases of maltreatment (N = 495, ages 0–11) were matched with non-maltreated children (N = 395) and followed up into adulthood.



Psychiatric symptoms (depression, anxiety, dysthymia, post-traumatic stress, antisocial personality, and substance use) and environmental vulnerability (social isolation, physical disability/illness, and homelessness) were assessed at mean age 29 and suicide thoughts and attempts at 39. Structural equation models tested for mediation, controlling for age, sex, race, and IQ. Childhood maltreatment predicted suicide attempts (Beta = 0.44, p<0.001), but not suicide thoughts only. Individuals with only suicide thoughts differed significantly from those with suicide attempts in psychiatric symptoms, physical disability/ illness, and homelessness. There were significant paths from child maltreatment to suicide attempts through psychiatric symptoms (0.18, p<0.001), ASPD (0.13, p<0.001), substance use (0.07, p<0.01), and homelessness (0.10, p<0.05). Court cases of child maltreatment may not generalize to middle- or upper- class and non-reported cases. Effect sizes were small but significant. Psychiatric risk factors for suicide are well recognized. These new results provide strong evidence that environmental vulnerability factors, particularly homelessness, are associated with increased risk for suicide attempts and warrant attention. Although many people report suicide thoughts, maltreated children with more psychiatric symptoms and who experience homelessness are more likely to attempt suicide and warrant targeted interventions. (Publisher abstract provided)


Date Published: November 1, 2020