Histories of child abuse are common among military members and may be important to consider when treating their mental health needs, according to a report from Canada.
People who join the military are more likely to report being abused as children, and that trauma may be more closely linked to suicide risk than trauma experienced during deployment, researchers suggest.
“It’s not that deployment-related trauma is not significant, but the relationship is less than childhood-related trauma,” said lead author Tracie Afifi, of the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg.
Previous studies have connected child abuse with increased risks of suicidal thoughts and attempts, the researchers write in JAMA Psychiatry. Other studies have found that military personnel are more likely to have been abused as children, which may partially explain that group’s increased risk of suicidal thoughts.
To examine the relationship between child abuse and suicide in the military, the researchers analyzed data from 8,161 members of the Canadian armed forces and 15,981 people in the general Canadian population. Participants were ages 18 to 60; their data were collected in 2012 and 2013.
About 48 percent of people in Canada’s regular forces and about 49 percent of reserved forces deployed to Afghanistan said they’d been abused as children, compared to about 33 percent of the general public.
“We found almost half that enter the military in Canada had a history of child abuse,” Afifi told Reuters Health.
The study can’t say why child abuse reports are so much more common among people in the military.
But the researchers did find that, as in the general population, a history of child abuse is tied to an increased risk of suicidal thoughts, plans and attempts among military members.
The relationships between child abuse and suicidal thoughts, attempts and actions were weaker in the military members than in the general population, which might be explained by the fact that screening during military recruitment and service may select more resilient individuals.
It could also be that the military’s environment of secured food, housing and employment are also protective.
Generally, however, suicidal tendencies were more closely tied to a child abuse history than to deployment related traumas.
“The findings with child abuse were stronger and more robust,” Afifi said.
The new findings agree with past research, according to John Blosnich, who co-wrote an editorial about the new study.
“Childhood adversity has really stark significant ramifications for adult health, which I think anyone can get on board with and understand,” said Blosnich, who is affiliated with the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System.
He told Reuters Health that the study shows clinicians should probably look at a person’s lifespan if they’re experiencing problems.
“What happens pre-military could be potentially important information that we don’t always get,” Blosnich said.
The researchers also say their findings suggest preventing child abuse may reduce suicide-related outcomes.
“From a broad public health point of view, we know that suicide and child abuse are important public health problems,” Afifi said. “We know this is the case in both military and general populations. If we can prevent child abuse, then we can reduce the prevalence of suicide in our populations as well.”