Maltreatment during Childhood Increases Risk of Mental Problems, Substance Abuse in Adulthood

Dealing with memories of childhood abuse or neglect is generally considered the root of many individuals’ mental conditions or mood problems during adulthood. Yet a new study shows that not just memories of childhood maltreatment, but the maltreatment itself can influence the likelihood of behavioral disorders in later life.

In a study published in the latest issue of Archives of General Psychiatry, lead researcher Dr. Kate M. Scott and her team explain that most documented research on the relationship between childhood maltreatment and later psychological disorders in adulthood has been based on retrospective reports on individuals’ familial histories. Usually, this information is considered unreliable for scientific purposes since most cases of child abuse and neglect go unreported and that memories of past events can become distorted overtime. Instead, the researchers at the Department of Psychological Medicine, University of Otago–Wellington in New Zealand performed a cohort study that involved young adults from the general public and any information that had been reported on these participants within the national child protection agency database.

Researchers surveyed 2,144 participants ages 16 to 27 from the New Zealand population to ascertain the prevalence of mood, anxiety, substance abuse, and other behavioral disorders. Of the group, 221 participants (about 10%) had histories of childhood maltreatment reported in the national child protection agency database. Participants were asked to describe psychopathological symptoms experienced within the last 12 months as well as throughout their lifetime.

After considering socioeconomic and demographic factors, researchers found that participants with histories of being involved with child protection agencies were associated with multiple types of mental illnesses–including post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety disorders, mood disorders, or substance abuse disorders–as well as comorbid disorders or all disorders. These individuals demonstrated a correlation to these disorders for both the 12-month period measure and lifetime measure.

Regarding prevalence of these disorders, an average of 5.12% of participants had post-traumatic stress disorder within the past year, 1.86% had a type of mood disorder within the past year, 2.41% had any type of anxiety disorder, and 1.71% had any type of substance abuse disorder. Those with a recorded history of childhood abuse or neglect were most closely associated with post-traumatic stress disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

When surveyed, 15% of the young adult participants without a history of childhood maltreatment reported in the child protection agency database reported that they had experienced abuse or neglect as a child. After removing these participants from the comparison, the associations to the adulthood psychopathological disorders for individuals with child protection agency histories increased almost tenfold. According to this data, the researchers found that the occurrence of maltreatment–and not just the memory of maltreatment–significantly increases the risk of psychological disorders in adulthood.

Researchers conclude that further mental health interventionist strategies are needed that target both past and present clients of child welfare agencies, in conjunction with the interventions performed to reduce or stop the maltreatment. Also, researchers point out that more prevention and intervention strategies are still needed to help those children who experience maltreatment that go unreported.

Sources: Archives of General Psychiatry, Prospectively Ascertained Child Maltreatment and Its Association with DSM-IV Mental Disorders in Young Adults, July 2010

Science Daily, Abused Children Appear Likely to Have Mental Disorders as Young Adults, July 6, 2010