The impact of childhood abuse and neglect on adult mental health: a prospective study

A V Horwitz, C S Widom, J McLaughlin, H R White
Journal of Health and Social Behavior 2001, 42 (2): 184-201
This paper examines the impact of three types of victimization in childhood--sexual abuse, physical abuse, and neglect--on lifetime measures of mental health among adults. In contrast to research that relies on retrospective recall of childhood victimization, this work uses a prospective sample gathered from records of documented court cases of childhood abuse and neglect in a midwestern city around 1970. These subjects were interviewed about twenty years later. In addition, this research compares outcomes of the 641 members of the abuse and neglect group with a matched control group of 510 persons who did not have documented cases of abuse or neglect. The results indicate that men who were abused and neglected as children have more dysthymia and antisocial personality disorder as adults than matched controls, but they did not have more alcohol problems. Abused and neglected women report more symptoms of dysthymia, antisocial personality disorder, and alcohol problems than controls. After controlling for stressful life events, however, childhood victimization had little direct impact on any lifetime mental health outcome. This research indicates the importance of adopting an approach that places childhood victimization in the context of other life stressors and of prospective changes over the life course.

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