In a study from University College London, scientists found experiencing abuse or neglect as a child can cause multiple mental health problems.
The research sought to examine the causal effects of childhood maltreatment on mental health by accounting for other genetic and environmental risk factors, such as a family history of mental illness and socioeconomic disadvantage.
In the study, the team analyzed 34 quasi-experimental studies, involving over 54,000 people.
They defined childhood maltreatment as any physical, sexual or emotional abuse or neglect before the age of 18.
Across the 34 studies, the team found small effects of child maltreatment on a range of mental health problems, including internalizing disorders (e.g., depression, anxiety, self-harm, and suicide attempts), externalizing disorders (e.g., alcohol and drug abuse, ADHD, and conduct problems), and psychosis.
These effects were consistent regardless of the method used or way in which maltreatment and mental health were measured.
The findings suggest that preventing child maltreatment would prevent one person from developing mental health problems.
The team says this study provides rigorous evidence to suggest that childhood maltreatment has small causal effects on mental health problems.
Although small, these effects of maltreatment could have far-reaching consequences, given that mental health problems predict a range of poor outcomes, such as unemployment, physical health problems, and early mortality.
Interventions that prevent maltreatment are therefore not only essential for child welfare but could also prevent long-term suffering and financial costs due to mental illness.
Nevertheless, the researchers also found that part of the overall risk of mental health problems in individuals exposed to maltreatment was due to pre-existing vulnerabilities—which might include other adverse environments (e.g., socioeconomic disadvantage) and genetic liability.
For more information about mental health, please see recent studies about daily habit that is powerful medicine for depression, and results showing sitting during COVID-19 pandemic linked to depression.
The study was conducted by Dr. Jessie Baldwin et al and published in the American Journal of Psychiatry.
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