Violence and Injury Prevention

New study suggests causal links between child maltreatment and mental and physical disorders in later life

Child physical and emotional abuse and neglect is linked to mental health disorders, drug use, suicide attempts, sexually transmitted diseases and risky sexual behaviour in adulthood, according to a new study published in this week’s PLOS Medicine.

The authors from research institutions in Queensland, Australia, and the World Health Organization, also found some evidence that child maltreatment increased the risk of chronic diseases and life-style risk factors such as smoking in later life. The authors say: “All forms of child maltreatment should be considered important risks to health with a sizeable impact on major contributors to the burden of disease in all parts of the world.”

The systematic review and meta-analysis showed that individuals who had been emotionally abused as children were three times more likely to develop depression, and individuals who had been physically abused or neglected one and a half times more likely to develop depression, than people who had not been abused as children.

Anxiety disorders, drug abuse, and suicidal behaviour were also linked to such maltreatment. Furthermore, maltreated children had a higher risk of sexually transmitted infections and/or risky sexual behaviour than people who had not experienced abuse.

The authors concluded that: “Awareness of the serious long-term consequences of child maltreatment should encourage better identification of those at risk and the development of effective interventions to protect children from violence.”