"Very rarely does programming address boys," says Laura Anderson. "It's often presumed to be an issue for girls. The results highlight the need to educate the public and develop preventive programming and support for male and female sexual assault survivors." (Credit: iStockphoto)

body weight

Sexually assaulted teens at greater risk of suicide

Teenagers who have been victims of sexual assault are at greater risk of attempting suicide.

Girls are not the only ones who need support. A new study shows that one in three teenage boys who have been victims of sexual assault has attempted suicide.

“The stigma is often not addressed; it’s a silent issue in society,” says Laura Anderson, a licensed psychologist and assistant professor in the University at Buffalo School of Nursing.

Not for girls only

“Very rarely does programming address boys. It’s often presumed to be an issue for girls. The results highlight the need to educate the public and develop preventive programming and support for male and female sexual assault survivors.”

Suicide is the third leading cause of death among adolescents. The greatest indicator of whether an attempt will be successful is the number of times someone tries to take his or her life.

The study, which shows that a history of sexual assault and unhealthy weight place girls at higher risk of attempted suicide, stems from an observation in Anderson’s clinical practice over the years with children and teens: She noticed that teens who attempted suicide tended to share the same histories of sexual assault and struggles with weight.

Published in the journal Suicide and Life Threatening Behavior, the study analyzes data from a Youth and Risk Behavior Survey that sampled more than 31,000 teenagers in 2009 and 2011. The research continues a preliminary study from 2011 that found similar results using a smaller sample of teens.

The poll surveyed students ages 14 to 18 and examined whether sexual assault and struggles with weight influenced suicide attempts within a year of the survey.

Stigma and shame

For boys, highlights of the study include:

  • 3.5 percent of healthy-weight males with no sexual assault history attempted suicide.
  • 33.2 percent of healthy-weight males with sexual assault history attempted suicide. This can be attributed to stigma, shame, possible gender role conflict if the attacker was male, and the lack of an open support system.
  • Weight alone is not a significant factor in suicide attempts for males. Only 3.9 percent of overweight males with no sexual assault history attempted suicide.
  • 33 percent of males who were both overweight and had a history of sexual assault attempted suicide.

Weight influences girls’ risk

For girls significant findings include:

  • 5.8 percent of healthy-weight females with no sexual assault history attempted suicide.
  • 27.1 percent of healthy-weight girls with a history of sexual assault attempted suicide.
  • Weight influenced the suicide rate among women: 8.2 percent of overweight girls with no sexual assault history attempt suicide.
  • Both factors did not increase suicide rate: 26.6 percent of overweight girls with sexual assault histories attempted suicide.

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Despite the large sample, the results are culturally loaded, as nearly 20 percent of students of color left questions surrounding suicide unanswered. Underreporting is common, especially among males and African American students, Anderson says.

Future studies will gather more detailed responses on sexual assault and suicide attempts, and examine additional variables, such as body mass index and perceived self-image. the relationship among weight, sexual assault, and suicide—especially in girls—is complicated and needs additional study.

Source: University at Buffalo

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