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Childhood Abuse a Risk Factor for Mental Illness

Childhood Abuse a Risk Factor for Mental IllnessCan mistreatment during childhood cause mental illness later in life?

New research results indicate that a documented history of maltreatment as a child is a risk factor for the development of psychological problems as an adult.

Dr. Kate Scott of the Department of Psychological Medicine at the University of Otago-Wellington in New Zealand and her colleagues studied young adults with mental health issues. They found that those with a documented record of childhood mistreatment were at a higher risk for later psychiatric problems than those with no history, or those who remembered abuse but had no documentation of mistreatment.  “Maltreatment, not just memory of maltreatment, (was) associated with subsequent psychopathology,” writes Scott.

Many different family problems in childhood have been shown to lead to psychological problems as an adult including physical or sexual abuse, neglect, family violence, trauma, or parental mental illness, criminality, or substance abuse. However, while it is clear that childhood adversity is associated with the development of adult mental health issues, in the past “most studies (relied) on adults to provide information on whether they were maltreated as children,” writes Scott. “Those retrospective reports are problematic because recall is not perfect and is affected by current mood, among other things, (which) might lead to a bias.”

Scott and her colleagues examined the records of 2,144 individuals in the Te Rau Hinengaro: New Zealand Mental Health Survey.  The survey is a national survey of all New Zealanders aged 16 years and older living in private households, and is designed to assess the prevalence of mental health disorders.  The survey includes data about mental health disorders based on face-to-face interviews, surveys, and diagnostic codes.  The survey also includes some information about childhood mistreatment based on recall.

Scott also looked at data from the national child protection agency database and found that 221 of the 2,144 participants had records there as well.

The researchers compared the percentage of individuals who remembered mistreatment and those with records of childhood maltreatment from the child protection agency database to those who had no record or memory of abuse.

They found that even after statistical adjustment for demographic and socioeconomic factors, a history of maltreatment significantly increased the odds of developing a mental disorder.  When only the individuals with a history of maltreatment officially documented by a record with the child protection agency were considered in the analysis, the association was even stronger.

The risk was particularly increased for conditions such as PTSD (odds 5.12), anxiety (odds 2.42), mood disorders (1.86), and substance abuse (1.71),

Scott’s research is important because it reinforces and strengthens the relationship between childhood trauma and adult mental health issues with objective data. 

“Most clinicians are well aware of the effects of child abuse,” Dr. Scott told Medscape Medical News. “The key message is for the research community…and for agencies with responsibility for the welfare of children — that they need to intervene to deal with the mental health effects of adverse environments in order to help prevent later disorders.”

Furthermore, Scott adds, “there is a need for both targeted mental health interventions with the present and past clients of child welfare agencies and for concerted population-level strategies to meet the needs of the many other children who experience maltreatment.”

Dr. Scott’s findings are available in the July 7 issue of the Archives of General Psychiatry.

Source: Archives of General Psychiatry

Childhood Abuse a Risk Factor for Mental Illness

Jessica Ward Jones, MD, MPH

APA Reference
Jones, J. (2018). Childhood Abuse a Risk Factor for Mental Illness. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 28, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 19 Jul 2010)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
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