PTSD May Be Linked to Youth Suicide

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide is the third leading cause of death among 15- to 24-year olds in 2005. This accounts for about 2.3% of all deaths every year in the United States. Recent research implies that the development of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may be linked with attempted suicide in youth.

Holly C. Wilcox of Johns Hopkins Children’s Center (Baltimore) and his team studied 1,698 young adults who had been monitored since going to the first grade in public schools in Baltimore. Fifteen years later, the participants were interviewed to evaluate the occurrence of suicide attempts, traumatic experiences, and PTSD development.

Results show that 81% of the participants had been exposed to at least a traumatic event. In addition, 8% of those who experienced trauma developed PTSD. About 10% of participants who developed PTSD had attempted suicide. Compare this to 2% of those who experienced or witnessed traumatic events but did not get the disorder and 5% of participants who had never been exposed to any traumatic event.

The authors write, "The mechanisms involved in the association between PTSD and suicide attempts are not known." They add, "There could be a common pre-existing predisposition to PTSD and suicide attempts that was present before the trauma occurred. Studies of early trauma and suicidal behaviors have implicated depression and impulsivity as possible mediators or possible pre-existing susceptibility traits."

Wilcox and colleagues note that, prior research has found that as much as 20% of suicide attempts in young adults are attributed to sexual abuse during their childhood. According to the authors, although their study did not explicitly focus on child sexual abuse, their results "point to the need to base risk estimates of attempted suicide on data that take into account the psychiatric response to the trauma".

By making a distinction between trauma-exposed individuals with and without PTSD, the researchers found that there is a strong connection between PTSD a youth’s increased risk of a suicide attempt. The study appeared in the March 2009 issue of Archives of General Psychiatry.