Study demonstrates a strong link between maltreatment in childhood and self-harm and suicidal behaviours

Posted 13th April 2023 in Research news

The Australian Child Maltreatment Study was a five-year study commissioned by the National Health and Medical Research Council. The results from the study, released in early April in a special edition of the Medical Journal of Australia, included information on how common childhood maltreatment is, as well as the links with health risk behaviours later in life, such as self-harm and suicide attempts.

In a nationally representative sample of 8,503 participants aged 16 years and older, it was found that 62% had experienced a form of maltreatment during childhood.

Study researcher, Associate Professor Holly Erskine, who leads the Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Epidemiology and Service research stream at the Queensland Centre for Mental Health Research, said, “We were shocked. We knew it would be widespread, but to see that it’s close to two in three Australians who have experienced child maltreatment was really staggering.”

Child maltreatment in the study included physical abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse, neglect, and exposure to domestic violence. Of those who had experienced any type of child maltreatment, 63% had who experienced child maltreatment (40%) experienced more than one type.

Study researcher, Professor David Lawrence, Professor of Mental Health in the School of Population Health at Curtin University, examined the link between childhood maltreatment and health risk behaviours and conditions later in life, including cigarette smoking, binge drinking, cannabis dependence, obesity, non-suicidal self-injury and suicide attempt. Self-harm and suicide attempts, as well as cannabis dependence, were the most strongly related to having experienced childhood maltreatment.

“One of the really surprising findings for us is that when we looked at people over the age of 30 in the study, we found almost no cases where there were self-harming behaviours, suicidal behaviours [or] cannabis dependence in the previous year who weren’t actually exposed to child maltreatment,” Professor Lawrence says.

“So the extent to which these risk behaviours and mental health problems might be associated with child maltreatment as one of the factors is potentially quite large.”

Sexual and emotional abuse presented the highest risks for self-harm and suicide, and experiencing more than one type of child maltreatment was associated with higher health risk behaviours.

“Our data is suggesting that when you’re looking at adults who are self-harming or suicidal or have significant mental health problems including PTSD, depression, anxiety, it is more likely than not these people have experienced a range of different types of maltreatment as young people,” Professor Lawrence added.

“We should be thinking of trauma-informed responses or at least assessing exposure to trauma as a standard part of our response to these issues and not a niche factor.”

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