Newswise — January 27, 2016 — According to a study published today in the journal JAMA Psychiatry, military personnel in Canada are more likely to have had exposure to child abuse than individuals in the general Canadian population. Furthermore, the study found that such exposure to child abuse was associated with an increased risk of suicidal behaviour. The risk had a stronger effect on the general population than military personnel, and the effect of exposure to child abuse was stronger than the effect of actual deployment-related trauma.

Tracie O. Afifi is associate professor in the departments of community health sciences and psychiatry at the University of Manitoba. She and her coauthors examined the association between child abuse exposure and suicidal behaviour (ideation, planning and attempts) among representative groups of military personnel and the general population in Canada. The authors analyzed data from 24,142 respondents (ages 18 to 60) in two nationally representative data sets. The study found that child abuse exposure was higher in the regular forces (47.7 percent) and reserve forces (49.4 percent) compared with the Canadian general population (33.1 percent).

Child abuse exposures were associated with increased odds of suicidal ideation, suicidal plans and suicide attempts in the general population and in the Canadian Armed Forces, although the study found that many of the associations were weaker in military personnel compared with civilians.

Afifi notes: “Suicide is an important public health problem among both military and civilian populations. The ability to accurately anticipate who will think about, plan, and attempt suicide is a difficult task.”

Deployment-related trauma was associated with past-year suicidal ideation and plans but by comparison, child abuse exposure was more strongly and consistently associated with suicide-related behaviors.

Afifi says she does not know why the research found that almost half of all military personnel in Canada have a history of child abuse exposure.

“But escaping from child abuse exposure at home or otherwise improving life circumstances with career and education opportunities available through the military may be the cause,” she suggests.

Afifi cautions that the study precludes making causal influences about child abuse exposure and suicide-related behavior. Instead, she suggests: “Child abuse exposure increases the likelihood of suicidal thoughts, plans, and attempts among civilians and military personnel in Canada. Prevention efforts targeting child abuse may reduce suicide-related outcomes in both of these populations.”

The study concludes: “The higher prevalence and the broad negative effects of child abuse exposure make this finding an important public health concern in the military, as in civilians. … Therefore, prevention efforts targeting child abuse exposure or mediators in the relationship between child abuse exposure and suicide-related outcomes may help reduce suicide-related outcomes.”

Two years ago, another study by Afifi and her co-researchers found that almost one-third of adults in Canada have experienced child abuse – physical abuse, sexual abuse, or exposure to violence in their home (i.e., against a mother, father, or other adult). The study found that child abuse is linked to mental disorders and suicidal ideation or suicide attempts. At that time, they had looked at data from 23,395 people from across Canada who participated in the 2012 Canadian Community Health Survey: Mental Health, but did not include members of the Canadian Forces.

“From a public health standpoint, these findings highlight the urgent need to make prevention of child abuse a priority in Canada,” Afifi emphasizes.