Childhood trauma and adult mental health

Trauma experienced by people during their childhood could see them more likely to experience mental health problems in later life. This is the suggestion of new research by Victor Carrion, Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioural Sciences at Stanford University, located between San Francisco and San Jose - which showed a correlation between a child's risk for learning and behaviour problems with the level of trauma they are exposed to.

According to the study, which has been published in the journal Child Abuse & Neglect, youngsters who live in violent and low-income neighbourhoods can be exposed to trauma that may have an impact throughout their lives.

Professor Carrion stated: "Contrary to some people's belief, these children don't get used to trauma. These events remain stressful and impact children's physiology."

He explained the findings - which were found as part of a collaboration with scientists at the University of New Orleans and the Bayview Child Health Center - suggest paediatricians should screen young people for trauma exposures on a regular basis.

Dr Kathryn Krimond, Chartered Psychologist, commented: "Research which signposts the impact of childhood experience on the developing person is not new.

"From classic studies on attachment through to research looking specifically at emotional and behavioural adjustment and the long term effects of trauma on psychosocial functioning, the importance of a child's early life has long been recognised. 

"The perhaps slightly different slant being suggested by Carrion's paper is that the number and different forms of trauma a child experiences will directly influence her/his adult life in terms of cognitive functioning, social behaviour, self-worth and even obesity. 

"A caveat to this assumed causal link is, of course, that trauma can be subjective; what is hugely traumatic to one person is not necessarily of the same import to another. An additional point of the paper is his warning to clinicians that they may be perpetuating the impact of these traumas by not talking to patients about them and compounding matters further by diagnosing and treating children incorrectly for Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder instead of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

"Again, however, there is research to suggest that repeated retelling of traumatic events can make the person relive the experiences with a negative rather than positive effect. More positively, Carrion suggests that 'with the correct diagnosis and interventions children can recover from PTSD' and that this then will have a beneficial effect not only on the individual concerned but also to society generally.

"To support this he tells of his work to launch the 'Center for Youth Wellness, a one-stop health and wellness centre for urban children and families in San Francisco'. Despite this, looking critically at the paper the focus in the work remains on intervention at an individual rather than societal level and whilst it is certainly important to address this it is surely also important to raise awareness of and work towards improving the social environment in which children are living."