By MARTIN JOHNSTON health reporter

Being sexually abused as a child is a more powerful indicator than depression of an adult's risk of contemplating suicide.

Auckland researchers calculate that it is up to four times more powerful and say this shows the need for mental health workers to check for past abuse.

Their study of 200 patients from a community mental health centre is being published in Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, a journal of the American Psychological Association.

Of the 40 patients who had disclosed childhood sexual abuse, 50 per cent were considered a high suicide risk, compared with 34 per cent of the 140 who disclosed no sexual or physical childhood abuse.

One of the researchers, Dr John Read, a senior psychology lecturer at Auckland University, said yesterday that the relationship between suicide risk and child abuse was well established internationally, but no one previously had compared the relative predictive power of abuse and depression.

"Suicide prevention programmes in New Zealand predominantly explain suicide among young adults in terms of depression, as if they have somehow answered the issue - so that all you need to do to prevent suicide is identify who is depressed and give them anti-depressants.

"The problem is that is a circular loop because obviously suicide is linked to depression," Dr Read said.

"The question is, what is causing the depression, and if we don't answer that question we are not going to get effective suicide prevention programmes."

Dr Allen Fraser, a Waitemata District Health Board psychiatrist, yesterday questioned Dr Read's latest findings.

"I think he's conflating suicidal ideas and completed suicide and these aren't necessarily the same thing."