Childhood adversity may up mental disorder risk: Study

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Growing up in poverty and experiencing traumatic events like an accident or sexual assault may increase the risk of mental health disorders, such as depression and anxiety, a study warns.

The research, published in the JAMA Psychiatry, shows that low socioeconomic status (L-SES) and the experience of traumatic stressful events (TSEs) were linked to accelerated puberty and brain maturation, abnormal brain development. “The findings underscore the need to pay attention to the environment in which the child grows. Poverty and trauma have strong associations with behaviour and brain development, and the effects are much more pervasive than previously believed,” Raquel E Gur, a professor at University of Pennsylvania in the US.

The study was the first to compare the effects of poverty (L-SES) to those who experienced TSEs in the same sample set. The researchers analysed data from of 9,498 participants aged eight to 21 years for the study. They found specific associations of SES and TSE with psychiatric symptoms, cognitive performance, and several brain structure abnormalities.

The findings showed that poverty was associated with small elevation in severity of psychiatric symptoms, including mood/anxiety, phobias, externalising behaviour (oppositional-defiant, conduct disorder, ADHD), and psychosis, as compared to individuals who did not experience poverty. The magnitude of the effects of TSEs on psychiatric symptom severity was unexpectedly large.


TSEs were mostly associated with PTSD, but here the researchers found that even a single TSE was associated with a moderate increase in severity for all psychiatric symptoms analysed, and two or more TSEs showed large effect sizes, especially in mood/anxiety and in psychosis. The researchers also found evidence that adversity is associated with earlier onset of puberty. Both poverty and experiencing TSEs are associated with the child physically maturing at an earlier age.

They found the same effects on the brain, with findings revealing that a higher proportion of children who experienced adversity had characteristics of adult brains. This affects development, as the careful layering of the structural and functional connectivity in the brain requires time, and early maturity could prevent the necessary honing of skills. “The study suggests that it makes sense for parents and anyone involved in raising a child to try and shield or protect the child from exposure to adversity,” said Gur. “Traumas that happen to young children can have lifelong consequences,” he said.