November 9, 2018
National Public Radio
When public health officials get wind of an outbreak of Hepatitis A or influenza, they spring into action with public awareness campaigns, monitoring and outreach. But should they be acting with equal urgency when it comes to childhood trauma?
A new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association suggests the answer should be yes. It shows how the effects of childhood trauma persist and are linked to mental illness and addiction in adulthood. And, researchers say, it suggests that it might be more effective to approach trauma as a public health crisis than to limit treatment to individuals.
The study drew on the experiences of participants from the Great Smoky Mountains Study, which followed 1,420 children from mostly rural parts of western North Carolina, over a period of 22 years. They were interviewed annually during their childhood, then four additional times during adulthood.
This study has something other similar studies don’t, says William Copeland, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Vermont who led the research. Instead of relying on recalled reports of childhood trauma, the researchers analyzed data collected while the participants were kids and their experiences were fresh. And the researchers applied rigorous statistical analysis to rule out confounding factors.
Even when the team accounted for other adversities aside from trauma, like low income and family hardships, and adult traumas, the associations between childhood trauma and adult hardships remained clear. The associations remained clear.
The study is “probably the most rigorous test we have to date of the hypothesis that early childhood trauma has these strong, independent effects on adult outcomes,” he says.
For Copeland, the wide-ranging impacts of trauma call for broad-based policy solutions in addition to individual interventions. “It has to be a discussion we have on a public health policy level,” he says.
Nearly 31 percent of the children told researchers they had experienced one traumatic event, like a life-threatening injury, sexual or physical abuse, or witnessing or hearing about a loved one’s traumatic experience. And 22.5 percent of participants had experienced two traumas, while 14.8 percent experienced three or more.
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