An analysis of data from 97 countries spanning the years 1950 to 2017 reveals that in jurisdictions permitting corporal punishment across all settings (including homes, schools, and daycares), female suicides among those aged 15 to 19 were nearly double. A partial prohibition of corporal punishment, especially in schools, correlated with a decline in suicide rates for both 15- to 19-year-old males and females, about 12-13 years post-ban. The study was published in Child Abuse & Neglect.
Suicide is a leading cause of death among adolescents. Adolescent suicide can result from an interplay of factors that include mental health issues, family problems, bullying, substance abuse, and feelings of hopelessness. Suffering corporal punishment is one of the possible risk factors for adolescent suicide that started attracting quite a bit of research interest in recent decades.
Typically, corporal punishment is defined as using physical force to intentionally cause pain (but not injury) to a child as a means of behavior correction or control. Common methods include spanking, slapping, or hitting. Despite its long-standing role as a disciplinary tool in numerous cultures, evidence suggests that corporal punishment can precipitate negative repercussions, such as heightened aggression, mental health concerns, and frayed parent-child bonds.
Study author Laura Cramm and her colleagues wanted to investigate whether there is a link between country-level corporal punishment policies and adolescent suicides rates. Particularly, they explored the link between suicide rates in 2017 and how many years ago corporal punishment was banned.
These researchers retrieved the legal status of national rules surrounding the permitting of corporal punishment in homes, schools, daycares, and alternative care settings by country and year from the End Corporal Punishment reports. The comprehensive End Corporal Punishment reports catalog information on the legalities of corporal punishment across different environments worldwide, including homes, schools, and penal systems. They also offer insights from recent research about the prevalence and societal attitudes towards corporal punishment. These documents are curated by an organization of the same name.
The researchers integrated these data with the mortality database of the World Health Organization that provides adolescent suicide counts by country. Data in this database are available by age groups and sex separately for years between 1950 and 2017.
The results showed a stark difference in suicide rates among boys aged 10-14 and girls aged 15-19 based on the jurisdictional legality of corporal punishment. Specifically, rates were nearly double for 15- to 19-year-old girls and 68% higher for 10- to 14-year-old boys in places allowing corporal punishment. Notably, for girls aged 15-19, suicide rates doubled in regions where corporal punishment was legal in schools.
Suicide rates tended to decrease between 8 and 17 years after corporal punishment was partially banned. For boys aged 15-19 years, the yearly decrease (compared to the year before) in suicide rates was the highest in the 13th year after the ban. For girls 15-19 years of age, suicide rates were declining between 9 and 14 years after the ban, with the largest yearly decline being in the 12th year after the ban. Similar postponed effects were found for banning corporal punishment in schools.
Summarizing the study, the authors stated, “Rates of suicide in females aged 15–19 were significantly higher in countries with no ban of corporal punishment compared to those countries with full bans, as well as significantly higher in countries that legally permitted corporal punishment in schools. In one of the most novel components of this analysis, lagged effects of both partial bans and bans of corporal punishment in schools were observed among males and females aged 15–19 years, with peak effects occurring after 13 years for the male stratum and after 12 years for the female stratum.”
The study makes an important contribution to the scientific understanding of the relationship between adolescent suicide and corporal punishment. However, it should be noted that these associations were calculated on country-level. They do not mean that adolescents who suffered more corporal punishments are more likely to commit suicide. Additionally, it is possible that factors not included in the study are responsible for both changes in suicide rates and corporal punishment laws, without any cause-and-effect relationship between the two.
The study, “Corporal punishment bans and adolescent suicide rates: An international ecological study”, was authored by Laura Cramm, Frank J. Elgar, and William Pickett.