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Childhood maltreatment responsible for up to 40% of mental health conditions – study

Childhood maltreatment accounted for 41% of suicide attempts, 35% for cases of self-harm and 21% for depression.

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Childhood maltreatment causes up to 40% of common, life-long mental health conditions.

This is according to a study – “Burden of Mental Disorders and Suicide Attributable to Childhood Maltreatment” by Lucinda Grummitt, Jessie R. Baldwin, Johanna Lafoa’i, et al – that was published in JAMA Psychiatry.

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

And so this 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 was to gain stronger evidence that childhood maltreatment causes some mental health conditions.

For this study, the 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 researchers found:

  • Childhood maltreatment accounted for 41% of suicide attempts, 35% for cases of self-harm and 21% for depression.
  • If childhood maltreatment was eradicated, more than 1.8 million cases of depression, anxiety and substance use disorders could be prevented.
  • Elimination of childhood maltreatment would, in 2023, 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.

The researchers said the results are a wakeup call for childhood abuse and neglect to be treated as a national public health priority.

For Grummitt, 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 children. 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,” Dr Grummitt said.

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