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Mental health conditions have a significant impact on people worldwide, with some studies suggesting upwards of 10 per cent of the global population experience a mental health condition at any one time. We also know that some mental health issues are associated with experiences from childhood such as maltreatment and abuse. A recent study from researchers at the University of Sydney has delved into quantifying the extent to which preventing childhood maltreatment could ease the burden of mental ill-health in Australia.

Researchers took data from three large cross-sectional national surveys: the Australian Child Maltreatment Study (ACMS) 2023, the National Study of Mental Health and Well-being 2020-2022, and the Australian Burden of Disease Study 2023. Using this combination of studies, they were able to estimate the prevalence of maltreatment and various mental health issues, and then estimate the proportion of those illnesses attributable to maltreatment. To measure maltreatment, a standardised tool called the Juvenile Victimization Questionnaire was used. It collected data on physical, sexual, and emotional abuse, medical and physical neglect and domestic violence exposure to measure whether children had experienced maltreatment.

Researchers found that childhood maltreatment accounted for substantial portions of mental health conditions, including 21 per cent for depression, 39 per cent for self-harm and up to 41 per cent for suicide attempts. In numbers, this translates to over 1.8 million cases of depressive, anxiety, and substance use disorders.

These results underscore the profound impact that childhood maltreatment has on mental health and the potential benefits of targeted prevention strategies. By comparing the burden of mental health conditions attributable to maltreatment with other health risks, such as tobacco use and its association with cancer, the study advocates for more resources to be directed towards preventing childhood maltreatment.

Lead author Dr Lucinda Grummitt said these results must serve as a ‘wakeup call’.

‘The results are devastating and are an urgent call to invest in prevention – not just giving individual support to children and families, but wider policies to reduce stress experienced by families,’ Dr Grummitt said.

Effective prevention could not only save millions from suffering but also considerably reduce the overall mental health burden on the healthcare system. The study reinforces the need to shift from treating mental health outcomes to preventing their causes and comprehensive policy measures that address the root causes of maltreatment and support families and children at risk.


Further information

Burden of Mental Disorders and Suicide Attributable to Childhood Maltreatment: JAMA Network

The impact of childhood trauma:

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