A new study led by UCL and published in the American Journal of Psychiatry proves that neglect or abuse experienced in childhood can lead to many mental health problems.
Childhood maltreatment was defined as neglect or any emotional, physical and sexual abuse taking place before the age of 18.
The research wishes to look into the effects of childhood maltreatment on mental health while also accounting for other risk factors including environmental and genetic ones such as socioeconomic disadvantages and a family history of mental illness.
It analyzed 34 quasi-experimental studies that included more than 54,000 participants.
By using specialized samples such as identical twins, or innovative statistical methods meant to rule off different risk factors, quasi-experimental studies can better determine cause and effect.
For instance, in the case of identical twins, if one of them is maltreated and experiences mental health issues but the other is not maltreated and does not have mental health problems, the link cannot be a result of shared family environment or genetics.
The research team was able to pinpoint small effects of child maltreatment on internalizing mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, self-harm and even suicide attempts across all 34 studies.
The same was also observed in the case of externalizing disorders including ADHD, conduct problems, alcohol and drug abuse and even psychosis.
No matter the method used to measure maltreatment and mental health, the effects were consistent.
The study determined that by preventing 8 cases of childhood maltreatment can prevent one person from suffering from mental health problems.
Dr. Jessie Baldwin, the corresponding author stated that “It’s well known that child maltreatment is associated with mental health issues, but it was unclear whether this relationship is causal, or better explained by other risk factors. This study provides rigorous evidence to suggest childhood maltreatment has small effects on mental health problems.”
Baldwin goes on to say that “Although small, these causal effects of maltreatment could have far reaching consequences, given that mental health problems predict a variety of poor outcomes, such as unemployment, physical health problems as well as early mortality. Therefore, interventions that prevent maltreatment are not only essential for child welfare, but can also prevent long term suffering and financial costs due to mental illness.”
At the same time, it’s important to note that the researchers also learned that part of the mental health risk in those suffering from maltreatment is also due to some other previously existing vulnerabilities including genetic liability and socioeconomic disadvantage.
“Our findings also suggest that to minimise the risk of mental health problems in people exposed to maltreatment, clinicians should address not only the maltreatment, but also the pre-existing psychiatric risk factors,” Baldwin shares.