We are now seeing a steady flow of research that is telling us more about the connections between childhood trauma and mental and physical health difficulties later in life. But, what is really great to see, is more research from here in Australia, talking about this.
New research that has just been published, has used an Australian community based survey (the 2007 National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing) to look at the relationship between child abuse and the long-term health care costs and impact on wellbeing.
This is what they have found:
".... that adults with a history of childhood abuse suffer from significantly more health conditions, incur higher annual health care costs and are more likely to harm themselves. Our results suggest that child abuse has long-lasting economic and welfare costs. These costs are greatest for those who experienced both physical and sexual abuse."
There have been many studies that have linked childhood trauma and child abuse to poor long term mental and physical health outcomes. The Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) study in America has identified that childhood trauma contributes towards substance abuse, heart disease, smoking, suicide attempts, depression and many other illnesses in adulthood.
This new Australian research has not only shown a correlation between poor mental and physical health outcomes, but has also provided an estimate of the increased cost each year that childhood trauma is having. This research has found that for adults who were both physically and sexually abused as a child, the annual healthcare cost per person is approximately $1856 higher than for those in the general population. This means that childhood trauma has huge implications for the health care system and for the cost to the community as a whole.
What impact does childhood trauma have?
The paper describes the many ways that childhood trauma can lead to poor adult health outcomes and increased health care costs. There is the immediate harm that is done to the child and the impact of the prolonged stress that the child lives under. This prolonged stress causes damaging, long term negative effects on the body, which become particularly apparent in the damage done to the heart and circulatory system. Prolonged stress also damages the immune system and leaves the child more vulnerable to a range of physical health problems that can last into adulthood.
Childhood trauma is also strongly associated with a range of mental health difficulties such as depression, anxiety and psychosis. Childhood trauma has negative impacts on self esteem and the child's ability to interact with others and develop appropriate interpersonal skills that are needed to develop and maintain the protective relationships of family and loved ones.
Adults who have experienced childhood trauma are also more likely to engage in more risk taking such as excessive drinking and drug taking, all of which we already know play a major role in contributing to poor health outcomes. They are also more likely to engage in self harming or suicide.
Another major area that childhood trauma impacts on, that is not mentioned in this current study, is the impact on educational engagement and success. Children who experience trauma or adversity are more likely to experience educational difficulties and poor academic achievement. This then impacts on their ability to be successful at school and go on to be a productive working member of the community.
With the expanding body of research continuing to demonstrate that childhood trauma has such negative long term impacts, it is essential that more is done now to intervene early; to increase the knowledge around and awareness of these impacts; and to be more effective in treating children who have experienced trauma.