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Suicide risk in abused teen girls linked to mother-daughter conflict

October 18, 2018
teenage girl writes the word HELP in chalk in the sidewalk near her feetAmong adolescents who suffered abuse or neglect as children, not all entertain suicidal thoughts. So what can we learn about those who do? A Mt. Hope Family Center study shows a strong correlation between poor mother-daughter relationships and increased suicide risk. (Getty Images photo)

Among adolescents who suffered maltreatment as children, not all entertain suicidal thoughts. So what can we learn about those who do?

Researchers at the University of Rochester’s Mt. Hope Family Center have found an answer by looking at the relationships between teenage girls and their mothers.

In the study, published in the journal Suicide and Life Threatening Behavior, the researchers identified a stark correlation between both poor mother-daughter relationships and high degrees of conflict—with the likelihood of suicidal thoughts.

“Our findings suggest that disruptions to a positive mother-teen relationship are one reason why children who experienced abuse or neglect are at risk for suicide as teens,” says lead author Elizabeth Handley, a Mt. Hope research assistant professor. The findings highlight the importance of relationship-based interventions for vulnerable youths.

The team tested three distinct variables that linked earlier maltreatment in childhood to suicidal thoughts for adolescent girls: 1) mother-daughter relationship quality, 2) mother-daughter conflict, and 3) adolescent depressive symptoms.

“We know from decades of research that a warm, nurturing, and consistent relationship between mothers and their children is critical for many aspects of healthy development. This continues to be true even in adolescence, when teens spend more time with their friends and less time at home with family,” says Handley.

The study included 164 socio-economically disadvantaged, depressed, adolescent girls (average age 14) and their mothers. Of the adolescents, 66.3 percent were African American, 21.3 percent white, and 14 percent Latina.

According to the Rochester researchers, relationship-based interventions are a promising approach to depression treatment for maltreated youth, such as interpersonal psychotherapy for adolescents, which focuses on the interpersonal context of depression. Attachment-based family therapy has also proven useful in reducing suicidal thoughts among teenagers by strengthening the functioning of the family and the parent-adolescent attachment relationship.

Maltreatment includes emotional, physical, and sexual abuse, and emotional and physical neglect. Among the study participants 51.8% of adolescents indicated a history of at least one form of maltreatment. As expected, the researchers found that rates of suicidal thoughts and recurrent thoughts of death were higher among teenage girls with a history of maltreatment than those without: 11.7 percent of non-maltreated, depressed adolescents indicated suicidal ideation, compared to 26.8 percent of maltreated, depressed adolescents.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention  (CDC), suicide is the second leading cause of death among adolescents aged 10 to 24 in the United States (accidental death is the leading cause). Adolescent girls in general are more likely than their male counterparts to have suicidal thoughts.

Given the scientific evidence that the more severe and pervasive the suicidal thoughts, the greater the likelihood of suicide attempt, understanding the cause of suicidal thoughts is critical for effective youth suicide prevention and intervention design.

The new study fits into a longer track record developed by Rochester researchers who are trying to understand and prevent suicide among targeted populations in the United States. In addition to the work at the Mt. Hope Family Center, the University’s Medical Center’s Center for the Study and Prevention of Suicide (CSPS)and its Injury Control Research Center for Suicide Prevention have been one of the nation’s leading research programs—the CSPS for nearly a quarter century. Together they are known for their research on the risk of suicide among the elderly, the military, and those experiencing intimate partner violence and substance use.

The Mt. Hope study, which received funding from the National Institute on Mental Health (NIMH), was conducted by researchers at the University of Rochester’s Mt. Hope Family Center and the University of Minnesota: lead author Handley was joined by Mt. Hope’s Tangeria Adams, Jody Todd Manly, and Sheree Toth, and Minnesota’s Dante Cicchetti.

Mt. Hope has been at the forefront of studying and designing interventions for maltreated children for the last 35 years, while trying to prevent child abuse in at-risk populations. Recognizing the center’s research prowess and effective community-based programs, the National Institutes of Health’sEunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) recently awarded a Mt. Hope and University of Minnesota multidisciplinary team, most of whom are co-authors of the present study, an $8.39 million grant to create a national center for child maltreatment studies.

If you need help for yourself or someone else, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline or call 1-800-273-TALK (8255)

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