Childhood Experiences and Mental Health

Our theme for January is Childhood Experiences and Mental Health. To introduce the topic, I decided to write a quick summary of an editorial written by John Read and Richard Bentall in 2012 that gives some background on the topic.

In the last few decades, the effects of childhood events on mental health have generally been ignored or minimized. The 20th century began with Sigmund Freud noticing that many of his clients had been sexually abused, and then deciding for some reason that those claims were false fantasies. Literature at the time also led people to believe that such events were uncommon – one reputed psychiatry textbook claimed the rate of incest was only one in a million. Hence, reports of adverse childhood events affecting mental health were often just brushed under the rug.

In more recent years, however, studies have shown that many adverse events that occur during youth – including but not limited to sexual abuse – are indeed predictors of mental illnesses. Specifically, Read and Bentall cited an issue of the Journal, where Kessler analyzed data from 21 countries and found that “childhood adversities have strong associations with all classes of disorders.” They also cited a review paper in 2009, which found that ten out of 11 studies reviewed showed that childhood maltreatment is “significantly related to psychosis.”

From the studies overall, some of the childhood adversities that could affect mental health included: “mother’s ill heath,” “poor nutrition and high stress during pregnancy,” “being the product of an unwanted pregnancy,” “early loss of parent via death of abandonment,” “witnessing inter-parental violence.” These childhood adversities were risk factors for the mental health outcomes of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), depression, anxiety disorders, eating disorders and many more. Sadly, as Read and Bentall put it, “it might be quicker to list those not predicted by childhood adversity.”

Ultimately, the takeaway here is that given these recent findings, we need to change our old approach and attitude towards the effect of childhood adversity on mental health. Specifically, we need to incorporate these new findings into our treatment plans and make sure that the relevant questions are being asked in order to make treatment as effective and holistic as possible. Finally, this topic is of importance because early signs could be used to prevent later developments of mental illnesses.

By Jeffrey He '20 | Staff Writer

Works Cited: Read, J., & Bentall, R. (2012). Negative childhood experiences and mental health: Theoretical, clinical and primary prevention implications. The British Journal of Psychiatry: The Journal of Mental Science 200(2), 89-91.