Mental health burden of child maltreatment may last decades
New research into child maltreatment has highlighted the links with ongoing mental health disorders, even into middle and older age adulthood.
The new study, led by the University of Glasgow and published in the Lancet Regional Health – Europe, finds that child maltreatment was associated with a wide range of mental health conditions in later life, even if they were not diagnosed of any in early adulthood.
Child maltreatment includes physical, emotional, and sexual abuse as well as neglect. Globally over one billion children and adolescents experience violence, and many more cases go unreported. As a result any link between child maltreatment and adult mental health disorders could reveal a substantial health burden.
The research looked at data from more than 56,000 participants from the UK Biobank to investigate the link between child maltreatment and mental health in later life. Researchers found that adults who had experienced three or more maltreatment types in childhood had the highest risk of all mental health conditions – almost twice the risk of the people without maltreatment experience.
The study also found that emotional abuse and neglect had stronger associations with all mental disorders, followed by sexual and physical abuse. The association between child maltreatment and all mental disorders was stronger among participants who binge drank or in those who had few social visits.
Dr Frederick Ho, lead author of the study from the University of Glasgow, said: “Our study supports a range of existing findings that all demonstrate a clear association between child maltreatment and poor mental health outcomes in adulthood.
“We also show that those who reported binge drinking were more vulnerable to any mental disorders and behavioural syndrome following child maltreatment. This suggests that child maltreatment victims who also have drinking problems represent a particularly vulnerable subgroup for mental illness and should be better supported.
“Our findings indicate that the potential mental health consequences of child maltreatment are apparent for as long as 20 to 70 years after the occurrence, even among individuals with no history of mental disorders in early adulthood.”
The study also explored a wide range of factors that might explained the link between child maltreatment and mental health conditions in later life but could not identify any strong mechanisms.
Dr Ho said: “As we did not identify strong mediators, prevention of child maltreatment should be prioritised to reduce maltreatment-related mental health burdens.”
The study, ‘Child maltreatment and incident mental disorders in middle and older ages: a retrospective UK Biobank cohort study’ is published in the Lancet Regional Health – Europe. The work was funded by Wellcome Trust.
First published: 28 September 2021