Happier children mean happier adults

| June 10, 2024

Many cases of mental illness in Australia could be eradicated by targeting child maltreatment. The impacts of doing nothing are devastating.

The staggering cost childhood maltreatment has on the mental health of Australians now has a crushing figure attached.

New research from the University of Sydney reveals childhood maltreatment is responsible for up to 40 percent of mental health conditions, including 41 percent of all suicides.

Cases of sexual abuse, or physical, emotional abuse and neglect were also found to cause 21 percent of depressive disorders, 24 percent of anxiety disorders, 27 percent of alcohol use disorders, 32 percent of drug use disorders, and 39 percent of cases of self-harm.

The study removes the influence of other major contributing factors, such as genetics or socio-economic conditions. This provides stronger evidence that child maltreatment causes mental health conditions, rather than just being associated with them.

The results suggest it’s time the eradication of child maltreatment became a major public health priority.

For perspective, smoking accounts for 24 percent of cancers in men in the US, and hypertension accounts for 23 percent of heart attacks globally. Both are treated as public health priorities and declining smoking rates across the developed world are heralded as key public health success stories.

The urgency to treat childhood maltreatment as a public health priority would offer the same focus on support, intervention and hopefully eradication.

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

Few in Australia have been left unmoved by recent stories of intimate partner violence. Addressing childhood maltreatment works toward helping end that crisis.

While most people exposed to childhood maltreatment do not perpetrate violence, experiences of child maltreatment increase the risk of intimate partner violence.

Early life maltreatment and stress can affect the brain and body’s stress response, leading to hypervigilance and perceiving threats in neutral or non-threatening situations.

People who have experienced trauma as a child may have difficulty regulating emotions and engaging in healthy coping behaviours. Anger and frustration can become the predominant emotion.

Researchers know that serious mental illness and substance use increase the risk of violence, further highlighting the importance of addressing childhood maltreatment before developing harmful consequences.

The path to ending this crisis begins with greater investment in prevention to ensure families with the greatest need have access to support.

This includes both efforts to prevent childhood maltreatment in the first place, as well as supporting people who have experienced it to prevent long-term harmful consequences.

Prevention includes effective home visitation and programs that provide education and support to parents. This has been shown to reduce rates of childhood maltreatment.

Addressing the parents’ own mental health and substance use problems is also crucially important.

More broadly, we need to address the social and structural “conditions that underlie childhood maltreatment”. Policies that ease stress on parents reduce rates of child abuse and neglect.

Expanding paid parental leave, improving access to childcaresubsidising health insurance for children, increasing the minimum wage, and increasing affordable housing are all policies that have been shown to be associated with reduced rates of child maltreatment.

In terms of preventing the development of mental health problems in  children, there are a number of ways we can prevent further harm. Safe and supportive environments and relationships are one of the most important ways we can buffer children from harmful long-term outcomes.

Teaching healthy coping skills, and social and emotional skills can be critical in ensuring healthy development following exposure. Ensuring our schools and our primary care settings are trauma-informed is also important.

These settings need to recognise the widespread impact of trauma and its symptoms of it on young people ensuring policies and practices provide support, rather than further traumatising or excluding individuals.

The research shows that 1.8 million cases of mental health in Australia are caused by these experiences that occur early in life and are preventable. These aren’t just statistics; these are people’s lives.

Dr Lucinda Grummitt is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at The Matilda Centre for Research in Mental Health and Substance Use at the University of Sydney.

Originally published under Creative Commons by 360info™.

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