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Does being victimised cause self-harm and suicide?

New research from Jessie Baldwin, a young scientist, looks at the link between victimisation and suicidal behaviours.

What’s the background?

Research suggests that when a person is victimised – either through maltreatment, bullying or being a victim of crime – they are more likely to think about suicide, self-harm and attempt to end their life.

But is this because of the victimisation itself? Or are there other factors at play?

A recent study by Jessie Baldwin has uncovered the impact that victimisation has on self-harm and suicide risk – and offers hope to identify new ways to protect people from causing themselves harm. 

How did they do it?

Jessie and her team looked at data from a twin study – which has followed over 2,000 twins born in 1994 and 1995 up to the age of 18.

At 18, the twins were interviewed about their experiences of victimisation including whether they’d been maltreated, neglected, experienced family violence, bullying, cyber harassment, sexual violence or crime. Jessie and her team created a ‘polyvictimisation’ score, which counted up the number of severe forms of victimisation someone had experienced.

The twins were also asked about whether they’d self-harmed, had thoughts about killing themselves or attempted suicide since they were 12 years old.

What did they find?

Jessie found that with each additional type of victimisation, the odds for having suicidal thoughts, self-harming, or attempting suicide were doubled or tripled.

But was it the victimisation causing these problems?

It’s important to understand the unique impact that victimisation has on the risk of suicide and to separate it other factors which are likely to cause suicidal tendencies, like genetics or family life.

Identical twins enabled Jessie to do this as they share the same genes and family environment. She found that if one twin had experienced victimisation, they were more likely to engage in self-harm and have suicidal thoughts, but not attempt suicide, compared to their identical twin who had not been victimised.

She also controlled for other factors linked to self-harm and suicidal behaviours like social isolation, mental illness, IQ and personality traits. And she discovered that even after accounting for all these factors, victimised adolescents were more likely to experience self-harm and suicidal thoughts.

Why does this matter?

The study makes the case that preventing adolescent victimisation could save lives from suicide and self-harm. More research is needed to understand what it is about victimisation that causes these effects and to develop better ways of protecting people from maltreatment, bullying and crime.  

Jessie won an award for presenting her research at our Mental Health Science Meeting. Our poster session invites early-career scientists to share their research with other scientists, increasing discussion and developing new ideas to transform mental health.   

Last updated: 18 April 2018

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