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Jennifer L. Tanner
Jennifer L. Tanner Ph.D.

Suicide at Age 27: Death due to child abuse

His cause of death wasn't suicide, it was child abuse.

Bill Zeller died of child abuse. At age 27.

Statistically, Bill Zeller's death will count as ‘1' in the 18 to 29 year-old column for deaths due to suicide. The CDC reports such fatal injury data by cause of death. But no government agency is responsible for correcting the CDCs counts of suicide when the cause of death occurred long before the suicide. And maybe there should be. Because Bill Zeller's cause of death was not suicide, it was child abuse.

Bill Zeller's cause of death occurred before he was in his 20s. His death was caused long before he was in kindergarten, likely before he had lost his first tooth. Before he could go to the store alone and maybe before he could swim, ice skate, or ride a bike.

We lost Bill Zeller not even 10 days ago, but his death was caused before Operation Desert Storm, before the Cold War ended, before OJ made a break for it, before Princess Diana died, and long before the days a suicide note could circulate to millions via the Internet.


Bill Zeller's suicide note tells us that he died in childhood:

"My first memories as a child are of being raped, repeatedly. This has affected every aspect of my life. This darkness, which is the only way I can describe it, has followed me like a fog, but at times intensified and overwhelmed me, usually triggered by a distinct situation. In kindergarten I couldn't use the bathroom and would stand petrified whenever I needed to, which started a trend of awkward and unexplained social behavior. The damage that was done to my body still prevents me from using the bathroom normally, but now it's less of a physical impediment than a daily reminder of what was done to me."


What if we thought of child abuse as a disease, like cancer? When someone dies of cancer, the course may run 10 or 20 years. Cancer spreads from a cell into an organ into the blood into another organ.

Bill Zeller's cause of death might look something like this:

Stage I: childhood

child abuse: raped repeatedly
child abuse resulted in serious physical disabilities
child abuse resulted in social issues related to physical disabilities caused by child abuse

Stage II: middle childhood

Child abuse induced depression.

"This darkness followed me as I grew up. I remember spending hours playing with legos, having my world consist of me and a box of cold, plastic blocks. Just waiting for everything to end... At times growing up I would feel inconsolable rage..."

Stage III: adolescence

Child abuse induced alienation.

"I've seen a number of doctors since I was a teenager...I was never given one piece of actionable advice, ever. More than a few spent a large part of the session reading their notes to remember who I was. And I have no interest in talking about being raped as a child, both because I know it wouldn't help and because I have no confidence it would remain secret...All it takes is a single doctor who violates my trust, just like the "friends" who I told I was gay did, and everything would be made public and I'd be forced to live in a world where people would know how fucked up I am."

Stage 4: emerging adulthood

Child abuse induced suicide.


What's the difference? Reframing suicide as a disease justifies a public health framework, one that emphasizes etiology (the causation or the origination), age of onset, and progression of disease. Perhaps most importantly, adopting a disease model emphasizes primary prevention.

Primary prevention of suicide due to child abuse must occur in childhood.

Primary prevention of suicide due to child abuse recognizes the role of the abuser in causing the suicide.

Because really, when you get down to the facts of child abuse induced suicide, the cause of death is the abuser.

The abuser is the cause of death.

And, while the CDC may not count the number of child abuse induced suicides that occur in emerging adulthood, it's easy to argue that the count would not be ‘1.'



Prevent suicide in emerging adulthood-help a child or adolescent if you suspect that he or she is suffering from child abuse, neglect, any maltreatment.


Childhelp USA®
National Child Abuse Hotline
24 Hours a Day

Child Abuse National Hotline
1-800-252-2873, 1-800-25ABUSE

National Youth Crisis Hotline
National Youth Development
1-800-HIT-HOME (1-800-448-4663)

National Runaway Switchboard
This hot-line is a referral service for youths in personal crisis.

State hotlines are also available.

About the Author
Jennifer L. Tanner

Jennifer L. Tanner, Ph.D., is an applied developmental psychologist at Rutgers University.

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