Children who have been maltreated are still at risk of developing mental health disorders up to 70 years after the abuse happened, a major study found.

Research led by the University of Glasgow found a clear link between abuse and psychological problems in later life, even among those who were not diagnosed with any disorders in early adulthood.

The study looked at data from more than 56,000 participants and found that those who experienced three or more forms of abuse in childhood had the highest risk of all mental health conditions – almost twice the risk of the people without maltreatment experience. 

Emotional abuse and neglect had stronger associations with all mental disorders, followed by sexual and physical abuse. 

Globally over one billion children and adolescents experience violence, and many more cases are said to go unreported. 

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The association between child maltreatment and all mental disorders was stronger among participants who binge drank or in those who had few social visits.

The NSPCC estimates that for every child identified as needing protection, another eight are suffering abuse. 

Government data shows the number of children on the child protection register increased from 2,580 in 2019 to 2,654 in 2020 - a 3% increase. The common causes for concern were emotional and domestic abuse, parental substance misuse, and neglect.

Dr Frederick Ho, lead author of the study from the University of Glasgow, said: “Our study supports a range of existing findings that all demonstrate a clear association between child maltreatment and poor mental health outcomes in adulthood. 

 “We also show that those who reported binge drinking were more vulnerable to any mental disorders and behavioural syndrome following child maltreatment. 

"This suggests that child maltreatment victims who also have drinking problems represent a particularly vulnerable subgroup for mental illness and should be better supported.

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“Our findings indicate that the potential mental health consequences of child maltreatment are apparent for as long as 20 to 70 years after the occurrence, even among individuals with no history of mental disorders in early adulthood.”

The study also explored a wide range of factors that might explained the link between child maltreatment and mental health conditions in later life but could not identify any strong mechanisms. 

Dr Ho said: “As we did not identify strong mediators, prevention of child maltreatment should be prioritised to reduce maltreatment-related mental health burdens.”

The study, ‘Child maltreatment and incident mental disorders in middle and older ages: a retrospective UK Biobank cohort study’ is published in the Lancet Regional Health – Europe. The work was funded by Wellcome Trust.