Up to 40% of mental health linked with childhood maltreatment
The Sector > Workforce > Advocacy > Up to 40% of mental health conditions can be linked back to childhood maltreatment

Up to 40% of mental health conditions can be linked back to childhood maltreatment

by Freya Lucas

May 15, 2024

Nearly half of all common mental health conditions have their roots in child abuse and neglect, a study from the University of Sydney has found, leaving researchers to call for childhood maltreatment to be treated as a public health priority.


The mental health conditions examined were anxiety, depression, harmful alcohol and drug use, self-harm and suicide attempts, and childhood maltreatment, in the context of the study, was classified as physical, sexual and emotional abuse, and emotional or physical neglect occuring before the age of 18 years.


Childhood maltreatment was found to account for 41 percent of suicide attempts in Australia, 35 percent for cases of self-harm and 21 percent for depression.


Published in JAMA Psychiatry the study is the first to provide estimates of the proportion of mental health conditions in Australia that arise from childhood maltreatment.  


“The results are devastating and are an urgent call to invest in prevention – not just giving individual support to children and families, but wider policies to reduce stress experienced by families,” study lead Dr Lucinda Grummitt said. 


If it were possible to eradicate childhood maltreatment in Australia, the researchers noted, more than 1.8 million cases of depression, anxiety and substance use disorders could be prevented.


In 2023 alone, the elimination of childhood maltreatment in Australia would have prevented 66,143 years of life lost (death) and 118,493 years lived with disability, totaling 184,636 years of healthy life lost through mental health conditions.


To reach their findings researchers examined data that included national surveys provided by the Australian Child Maltreatment Study in 2023 (8500 participants), the Australian National Study of Mental Health and Wellbeing 2020-2022 (15,893 participants) and the Australian Burden of Disease study 2023.


The study made use of analytical methods to investigate the link between child maltreatment and mental health, which isolated other influential factors such as genetics or social environments. This provides stronger evidence that childhood maltreatment causes some mental health conditions.


Mental health conditions are currently the leading cause of disease burden globally and affect 13 percent of the global population. In Australia, suicide is the leading cause of death for young people.


Dr Grummitt said there are effective interventions, such as programs to support children experiencing maltreatment or parent education programs, but the most sustainable solution to prevent child maltreatment is policy-driven prevention.


“Policies to alleviate stress experienced by families, such as paid parental leave, affordable childcare, income support like Jobseeker, and making sure parents have access to treatment and support for their own mental health could make a world of difference for Australian children,” she explained.


“Addressing the societal and economic conditions that give rise to child maltreatment can play a large part in preventing mental disorders at a national level.” 


There is an international precedent supporting the impact of the introduction of state paid parental leave policies and timely access to subsidised care which were strongly linked to reduced rates of child maltreatment.


Read the study in full here

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