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Child Psychiatrist /Adult Psychiatrist

Child Assault Tied to Triple the Risk for Mental Illness Within 1 Year

Updated: Sep 15, 2023

a close up of a child's face

Children exposed to physical assault were twice as likely to be diagnosed with mental illness in the years following the assault than those who weren't exposed, a new population-based study shows.

The greatest risk was found in the first year following the assault, increasing to three times the risk of being diagnosed with mental illness compared with children not assaulted. Mood and anxiety disorders were the most common diagnoses.

"From a clinical and policy perspective, our study highlights that there is a critical opportunity for healthcare clinicians to support children in the first year following physical assault," report Natasha Saunders, MD, MSc, of the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, Canada, and colleagues. "There is a need to develop and implement targeted mental illness prevention, screening, and treatment programs for assaulted children."

The findings were published online August 16 in JAMA Network Open.

While it has been well-established that children exposed to assault have an increased risk for subsequent mental illness, Saunders and her co-investigators noted that using an age-matched, population-based cohort study would enable them to obtain detailed information on the patterns and timing of subsequent psychiatric diagnoses.

To that end, the researchers used several medical databases in Ontario to find 5487 children (infants to age 13 years) who required an emergency room visit or hospitalization for a physical assault in Ontario between 2006 and 2014.

These children were matched on a 1:4 basis with 21,948 children not exposed to physical assault.

The children were followed until their 18th birthday or until the study ended in March 2019.

The researchers found that more than a third of the children (39%) who were exposed to assault received a mental health diagnosis, according to health records, compared with 23% of unexposed children.

Mood and anxiety disorders were the most common diagnoses among children exposed to assault (16.2% vs 10.6%, respectively); followed by select childhood behavior disorders, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, oppositional defiant disorder, or conduct disorder (9.9% vs 5.2%); and substance use disorders (2.4% vs 0.4%).

Triple Risk of Mental Illness in First Year

The researchers found that the children exposed to assault were nearly twice as likely to be diagnosed with a mental illness over a median follow-up of 7 years compared with those not exposed to assault (adjusted hazard ratio [aHR], 1.96; 95% CI, 1.85 - 2.08).

In the year following the assault, children exposed to assault bore three times the risk of being diagnosed with a mental illness compared with unexposed children (aHR, 3.08; 95% CI, 2.68 - 3.54).

In addition, the children who had been assaulted were more likely to be diagnosed in an acute care setting than those who were not assaulted (14% vs 2.8%).

The children who had been assaulted were an average age of 7 years and were more often boys (55% vs 45%). Children who were assaulted were also more likely to have mothers with mental illness (35% vs 19%).

The investigators noted that the study likely underestimated the number of children exposed to assault, as many do not end up in the ER.

In addition to highlighting the need for medical personnel to support children in the first year following assault, the investigators noted that "our results also advocate for accessible mental health care outside of the acute setting and for care that addresses the social and health needs of mothers, who themselves have high social and health risks."

This study received funding from the National Foundation to End Child Abuse and Neglect and the Ontario Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Long-Term Care. Saunders reported receiving personal fees from The BMJ Group, Archives of Diseases in Childhood outside the submitted work.


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