Suicide is often the final stop in the destructive, often intergenerational cycle of childhood sexual traumas. Frequently the perpetrator of such atrocities was abused him/herself and is thus reenacting a component of his/her own experience growing up. Often it is difficult, if not impossible, for the victim to disclose the sexually abusive act. In many instances, the survivor may “forget” or dissociate what occurred. It is not until something reminds him/her of the incident(s) i.e. having a child who is now at the age he/she was when he/she was abused, that the abuse is remembered. Hence, years if not decades later, his/her story is told, sometimes revealed through a suicide letter.
Though sexual betrayals of children’s needs and vulnerability have always occurred, scandals of rampant sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, Boy Scouts, Penn State, and now Horace Mann, infiltrate our culture and media. Children and adolescents who have been sexually abused may be six times more likely to attempt suicide, and eight times more likely to try again. These victims suffer with depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and addictions including sexual compulsivity and eating disorders, and are also inclined to be re-victimized in later life. The incidents at the prestigious Horace Mann occurred in the late Seventies when awareness about sexual predators was less discussed, and parents were not apt to teach their children about strange or uncomfortable touch, nor empower them with saying “no” to adults or those in authority. We would hope that such tactics would help arm children in instances where others are predatory. Yet, often children are afraid to come forward about abuse given their shame and attempts to protect parents (in a role reversal) from what happened to them. For example, they may not want to burden them. Thus, they maintain terrible secrets which alter their personalities and sense of themselves. Parents should be mindful of changes in the personality and appearance of their children. One of my clients told me she no longer looked happy or dressed in an attractive way following her molestation. Didn’t her mom register that? Unfortunately, parents often don’t. They may normalize changes which may be hard to discern, or be struggling themselves to juggle domestic and work tasks. Even in optimal circumstances, a child may be too ashamed to tell someone, especially if he or she experienced some emotional or sexual gratification in response to the molester’s attention and actions. Children—especially those who may be more vulnerable due to emotional, physical or financial circumstances—have always been prey to those inclined to exploit them. While greater awareness of these issues may help, those inclined to act out abusively will find a way to do so.
As a therapist, my concern is to help people heal from these abuses, helping them figure out the timing and pacing of disclosure, as well as to whom they will disclose. One should never be forced to come out about the abuse unless he or she is ready, and can deal with the consequences of telling others which may invariably involve re-traumatization, especially if she or he is not believed, or if the perpetrator is protected. As we know from these public travesties, perpetrators are often respected and protected. So are family members, friends and neighbors. A child’s word against an adult’s often presents a severe dilemma in terms of who is believed and often the child’s words are no match for the perpetrator’s defense. Hence, the victim-survivor’s story of trauma unfolds through symptoms, problems and if not attended to properly, suicide.
Gwenn A. Nusbaum, LCSW, BCD, CGP
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