The Main Risk Factor for Mental Disorders Identified
Recent research conducted in the USA assures that adverse experiences during childhood is the main risk factor for mental disorders. These have profound consequences, both in physical and mental health.
To a large extent, mental pathologies remain a mystery to science. The causes of these conditions are continuously sought in many areas, from genetics to society. After exhaustive work, a group of researchers concluded that the main risk factor for mental disorders is having experienced adversity during childhood.
When speaking of adversity at an early age, there’s always an allusion to situations of abuse, be it physical or psychological, as well as traumatic experiences, such as losses or significant deficiencies. It’s striking how formal science and psychoanalysis meet again at this point.
The assertion that early adversity is the main risk factor for mental illness comes from a study conducted in Dell Medical School in Austin, Texas. Dr. Charles Nemeroff, Ph. D., professor, and chair of the department of psychiatry at Dell’s Mulva Clinic for the Neurosciences and director of the Institute for Early Life Adversity Research led the research.
“The best way to make children good is to make them happy.”
The main risk factor for mental disorders
The scientists who led this study not only pointed out that childhood adversity is the main risk factor for mental illness. They also noted that these experiences have other serious consequences.
Firstly, a child who’s gone through difficult or traumatic experiences has a shorter life expectancy than one who grew up in a stable environment. The study associates child abuse with the subsequent development of pathologies such as obesity, stroke, diabetes, cancer, and cardiovascular problems.
From a psychiatric point of view, abused children have a higher risk of developing addictions, especially alcohol abuse. They may also suffer from depression and all sorts of mental disorders. Furthermore, the study also indicates that those with this type of traumatic history are harder to treat with therapy.
Research indicates that, according to estimates made so far, one in four children is the victim of some form of abuse or neglect. The most frequent cases are those in which there’s emotional abuse, neglect, or abandonment.
According to the data collected, at least 46% of patients with depression and 57% of those with bipolar disorder have this type of history. The data also established that the earlier the abuse takes place, the more severe the traces it leaves. In addition, these patients are much harder to help.
Similarly, the severity of the abuses suffered and the duration greatly influences them. In any case, researchers highlight the fact that all forms of abuse during childhood make a permanent dent. They insist this is, by far, the main risk factor for mental illness.
Caring for abused children
One of the facts this study points out is that, although emotional abuse and neglect are the two most widespread forms of abuse, they’re also the least attended on time. This is because they’re underground forms of violence that don’t leave clearly noticeable traces.
In fact, many of the children subjected to these behaviors never consult a mental health professional when they’re adults. This is because they don’t believe they’re victims of abuse.
They end up being disappointed in life or in their own performance. However, they don’t look for causes in the past actions of the adults who were in charge of them. Many believe abuse only occurs when there’s physical violence.
Surprising facts regarding the risk factor for mental disorders
One of the most surprising pieces of information in this study is that it’s related to intergenerational genetic trauma. The surviving victims of the Jewish Holocaust studied this phenomenon extensively. It’s related with a change detected in the sperm and eggs of people who underwent severe psychological trauma.
Experts point out that, in these cases, and through epigenetic mechanisms, the effect of trauma is genetically transmitted to the next generation. This would predispose many people to developing a special type of stress that coincides with post-traumatic stress.
Finally, the researchers highlighted the changes in the brains of abused children. They tend to have lower volumes of gray matter, as well as thinner in the dorsal and ventral prefrontal cortex. The study notes that more research is still required on the subject to deepen the current findings.