The Abuse Is Past But Effects Linger

Child abuse long term effects include psychiatric disorders in adulthood

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) The impact of child abuse doesn't end when a child escapes an abusive environment. But knowing their future risks of health issues can help abused individuals seek treatment early.

A recent study has found a strong link between mental disorders in adults and a history of child abuse.

"Report child abuse."

The study, led by Luisa Sugaya, MD, of the New York State Psychiatric Institute, focused on adults who reported having been physically abused when they were children.

The researchers used data from the 2000-2001 and the 2004-2005 National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions, which included 43,093 U.S. adults.

The researchers looked at those who were abused and children and compared their rate of psychiatric conditions to that of people who were not abused.

From the full data set, 8 percent of the respondents reported having been abused as children.

Many of these people also experienced other difficulties in their childhood, so the researchers took this into account in their calculations.

The researchers also adjusted their calculations to account for the respondents' demographics and income and other mental disorders they had.

Overall, the researchers found that people who had experienced child abuse were more likely to be diagnosed with a range of different mental health conditions.

A total of 84 percent of those who had been abused as children had at least one mental health disorder. They also attempted suicide at a greater rate than those who were not abused.

Depending on the conditions, the adults who had been abused were anywhere from 16 times more likely to over twice as likely to have a psychiatric condition.

The conditions most commonly found among those who had been abused included attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), post traumatic stress disorder and bipolar disorder.

Others that were common included panic disorder, drug abuse, nicotine dependence, generalized anxiety disorder and major depression.

The researchers also found a relationship between how often these adults had been abused as children and how likely they were to have a mental disorder.

Basically, the more often they had been abused as children, the higher their risk was of later developing a mental health condition.

The authors concluded that child abuse has significant long-term effects, so prevention is especially important.

"The long-lasting deleterious effects of child physical abuse underscore the urgency of developing public health policies aimed at early recognition and prevention," the authors wrote.

LuAnn Pierce, a clinical social worker in Colorado, said this study's findings echo those of others finding links between child abuse and adult mental health problems.

With ADHD, some evidence points to these children already being at higher risk for abuse, possibly because their parents have undiagnosed ADHD, Pierce said.

"When both a parent and child have problems with impulse control, become easily frustrated and have a low frustration tolerance, the stage is set for high conflict family problems that require sophisticated coping skills," she said.

She also noted that the effects of child abuse in the brain might be a factor in later mental health issues.

"The likelihood that child abuse, or the stress response created by the abuse, may be related to changes, delays or malfunction in the physical structure of the brain, resulting in later mental health disorders is worth noting," Pierce said. "This theory could explain a lot that we have not understood about the connection between early abuse and later psychiatric and anti-social behavior."

Therefore, the combination of risk from genetic factors and risk from environmental factors may converge for children experiencing abuse.

"The nature versus nurture argument seems more likely to be nature and nurture as we learn more about changes in brain development that result from abuse and neglect in childhood," Pierce said.

Other findings of the study were that girls were more likely to be abused (or, at least to report being abused when they were adults) than boys and that those born in the U.S. were more likely to experience abuse than foreign-born respondents.

A higher rate of abuse also occurred among Native American, black and Latino respondents compared to white respondents.

Those who reported being abused as children were more likely to be widowed, separated or divorced and were less likely to have higher education.

They were also more likely to use public health insurance, such as Medicaid or Medicare, instead of private insurance.

There was not, however, a difference between children who grew up in urban environments compared to rural areas in terms of who experienced child abuse.

The study was published in the August issue of the Journal of Traumatic Stress. The research was funded by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, the National Institutes of Health, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and the New York State Psychiatric Institute.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
September 26, 2012
Last Updated:
October 2, 2012