Experiencing parental domestic violence as a child linked to mental illness in adulthood

TORONTO, Ontario — Witnessing domestic violence at home is distressing for any child in the moment, but troubling new research suggests these incidents may have a much longer lasting impact. Scientists at the University of Toronto report roughly one-fifth (22.5%) of adults who experienced chronic parental domestic violence during childhood went on to develop a major depressive disorder in adulthood.

In comparison, only 9.1 percent of those without a history of parental domestic violence showed signs of mental illness.

“Our findings underline the risk of long-term negative outcomes of chronic domestic violence for children, even when the children themselves are not abused,” says study author Esme Fuller-Thomson, Director of University of Toronto’s Institute for Life Course and Aging at the University of Toronto and Professor at the Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work (FIFSW), in a media release. “Social workers and health professionals must work vigilantly to prevent domestic violence and to support both survivors of this abuse and their children.”

Childhood trauma can make someone ‘perpetually anxious, fearful’

In many homes, parental domestic violence (PDV) isn’t the only major problem. PDV is often accompanied by other traumatic “adversities” such as childhood physical and sexual abuse. Consequently, it’s been difficult in the past for researchers to analyze the sole long-term impact of chronic parental domestic violence at home.

To solve this scientific roadblock, researchers purposely excluded any potential participants who had experienced childhood physical or sexual abuse. Ultimately, the project’s volunteers featured 17,739 respondents from the Canadian Community Health Survey-Mental Health. Within that larger group, a total of 326 reported experiencing and seeing PDV over 10 times at home before their 16th birthday (defined as ‘chronic PDV’).

The investigation revealed that roughly one in six adults (15.2%) who experienced chronic PDV went on to develop an anxiety disorder later in life. Only 7.1 percent of those who did not experience parental violence developed anxiety issues.

“Many children who are exposed to their parent’s domestic violence remain constantly vigilant and perpetually anxious, fearful that any conflict may escalate into assault. Therefore, it is not surprising that decades later, when they are adults, those with a history of PDV have an elevated prevalence of anxiety disorders,” adds study co-author Deirdre Ryan‑Morissette, a recent Masters of Social Work graduate from University of Toronto’s FIFSW.

Perhaps even more troubling, 26.8 percent of adults exposed to chronic PDV also developed substance use disorders, in comparison to 19.2 percent of those without exposure to PDV.

Adults can still overcome a difficult childhood

Thus far, this work may suggest to readers that growing up in a tough home environment (to put it mildly) will doom a child to poor mental health decades down the line. That isn’t true at all, however. For example, over three in five adults who dealt with chronic PDV as a child still displayed excellent mental health. Study authors add they were free from any mental illness and free from substance dependence or suicidal thoughts over the prior year. These individuals are generally happy or satisfied with their lives, and report robust social and psychological well-being.

While the numbers clearly indicate that growing up around parental conflict can make it harder to achieve well-being as an adult, mental illness is certainly not a foregone conclusion.

“We were encouraged to discover that so many adults overcame their exposure to this early adversity and are free of mental illness and thriving,” explains study co-author Shalhevet Attar-Schwartz, Professor at Hebrew University’s Paul Baerwald School of Social Work and Social Welfare. “Our analysis indicated that social support was an important factor. Among those who had experienced PDV, those who had more social support had much higher odds of being in excellent mental health.”

The team note more research is necessary on these topics, as this project had several limitations. For example, data on the duration of PDV at home in years was missing, as well as information on the severity of said violence.

“Our study highlights the need for more research on interventions for mental illness, substance use disorders, and social isolation among those with PDV exposure, with the goal of having a greater proportion of those experiencing childhood adversities obtaining optimal mental health” Fuller-Thomson concludes.

The study appears in the Journal of Family Violence.

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