Child Abuse Prevention is Suicide Prevention

April 16, 2021

News Type:  Director's Corner

It is becoming more evident that preventing child maltreatment can help prevent suicide. During the COVID-19 pandemic, risk factors for child abuse and neglect are elevated, which may increase the risk of suicide in both the short and long term. Providing families with the supports they need now can help protect children from maltreatment and lessen the impact of the pandemic on their overall mental health and suicide risk. This National Child Abuse Prevention Month, we encourage you to integrate strategies to support children and families into your suicide prevention efforts.

Child maltreatment is physical, sexual, or emotional abuse or neglect by a parent or caregiver resulting in actual or potential harm to the child. Research has shown that experiencing early abuse or neglect is linked to poor physical and behavioral health outcomes throughout life, including increased suicide risk in childhood and adolescence as well as adulthood. Maltreatment is just one type of adverse childhood experience that can place young people at risk, which is why addressing early adversity is a critical part of a comprehensive approach to suicide prevention.

Unfortunately, child maltreatment is prevalent in the U.S.—but more importantly, it is preventable. When families have the support, resources, and tools to create safe relationships and environments, child abuse and neglect is reduced. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Essentials for Childhood Framework guides states, communities, and organizations in how to prevent maltreatment and promote the healthy development of children and families. Like suicide prevention, child abuse prevention is more likely to be effective when multiple strategies are implemented across all levels of society. CDC outlines such strategies, ways to advance them, and their evidence base in a corresponding technical package.

Among the factors that can protect against child abuse, supportive family environments and social networks are critical. However, these are the very systems that have been challenged during the pandemic. In the past year, many families are experiencing financial strain, social isolation, and a loss of resources, most notably the loss of the safety net provided by in-person schooling. To counter the impact of these stressors, communities should strengthen economic and social supports for families, ensure educational continuity through remote learning, and enhance parenting skills.

Fortunately, there are evidence-based treatments available that provide parents and caregivers with the skills to reduce risk of child maltreatment and family disruption, as well as foster their child’s healthy development. These treatments cover the age range from infancy (e.g., Nurse-Family Partnership) though early childhood (e.g., Parent-Child Interaction TherapySafeCareThe Incredible Years, ) into adolescence (e.g., Multisystemic TherapyAlternatives for Families: A Cognitive Behavioral Therapy). In addition, Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy can strengthen coping and resilience in children who have experienced trauma. Most of these effective treatments can be offered in person or virtually.   

During the pandemic, it can also be helpful to provide parents with tips on family coping and how to manage their own emotions, such as anxiety and frustration, to avoid passing them on to children. Prevention practitioners and clinicians should tailor their supports to the particular individual, family, and community they are working with, as their context and needs will vary.

Given the strong evidence linking child maltreatment and suicide risk, more efforts are needed to prevent and address early abuse and neglect as part of a comprehensive approach to suicide prevention. With the pandemic disrupting many of our social and economic systems, and placing increased stress on families, now is the time to take action to protect the immediate and long-term mental health of our children. Through cross-sector collaboration, prevention practitioners and clinicians from each of these disciplines can work with families and communities to ensure all young people have access to safe, nurturing homes.

Learn more about the innovative prevention work being done in communities around the country to support children and families, and consider how you might integrate it into your suicide prevention efforts.

Dolores Subia BigFoot, PhD

Presidential Professor

SPRC Co-director

Center on Child Abuse and Neglect

Indian Country Child Trauma Center

University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center

Beverly W. Funderburk, PhD


SPRC Co-director

Center on Child Abuse and Neglect

University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center