A happy childhood does not guarantee good mental health in adulthood

ADELAIDE, Australia — Does one’s past dictate their future? A new study out of Australia is offering up an answer, at least when it comes to mental health. Researchers from the University of South Australia report a happy, secure childhood does not guarantee someone will be free from mental illness later in life.

Many prior studies have found a connection between troubled childhoods and a higher risk of mental health problems. The opposite of that relationship does not appear to hold true. The study authors, collaborating with colleagues from the University of Canberra, investigated how varying childhood experiences and lifestyles influence mental health outcomes decades down the line.

Ultimately, the study concludes that both positive and negative experiences, memories, and events during childhood can lead to anxiety issues or other mental health problems as an adult. With this in mind, they theorize that one’s mental health depends much more on their ability to adapt to new and unexpected situations rather than dwelling on past ones.

No way of predicting mental illness?

UniSA PhD candidate Bianca Kahl says this work showcases the truly unpredictable and indiscriminate tendencies of mental illness.

“As the prevalence of mental health conditions expands, it’s imperative that we also extend our knowledge of this very complex and varied condition,” the lead researcher says in a university release. “This research shows that mental health conditions are not solely determined by early life events, and that a child who is raised in a happy home, could still grow up to have a mental health disorder. There’s certainly some missing factors in understanding how our childhood environment and early life experiences might translate into mental health outcomes in adulthood.”

“We suspect that it’s our expectations about our environments and our ability to adapt to scenarios when our expectations are not being met, that may be influencing our experiences of distress,” she concludes. “If, as children, we learn how to adapt to change, and we learn how to cope when things do not go our way, we may be in a better position to respond to stress and other risk factors for poor mental health.”

The research team is planning on testing out that hypothesis via their next study initiative.

The study is published in Current Psychology.