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Witnessing domestic violence raises risk of mental health problems in children

By HealthDay News
Among those who were exposed to chronic parental domestic violence during childhood, 22.5% had major depression at some point in their life, 15% had an anxiety disorder and nearly 27% had a substance abuse disorder, a new study found. Photo by kalhh from Pixabay
Among those who were exposed to chronic parental domestic violence during childhood, 22.5% had major depression at some point in their life, 15% had an anxiety disorder and nearly 27% had a substance abuse disorder, a new study found. Photo by kalhh from Pixabay

Witnessing violence between your parents is traumatic when it happens, but a new study finds that trauma can raise your risk of depression and other mental health problems.

The study included more than 17,700 Canadian adults who took part in a national survey on mental health. Of those respondents, 326 said they witnessed parental domestic violence more than 10 times before age 16, which was defined as chronic.

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Among those who were exposed to chronic parental domestic violence during childhood, 22.5% had major depression at some point in their life, 15% had an anxiety disorder and nearly 27% had a substance abuse disorder. In comparison, the rates among people with no history of violence between their parents were 9%, 7% and 19%, respectively.

"Our findings underline the risk of long-term negative outcomes of chronic domestic violence for children, even when the children themselves are not abused," said study author Esme Fuller-Thomson, director of the Institute for Life Course and Aging, at the University of Toronto.

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"Social workers and health professionals must work vigilantly to prevent domestic violence and to support both survivors of this abuse and their children," Fuller-Thomson added in a university news release.

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According to study co-author Deirdre Ryan‑Morissette, a recent masters of social work graduate from the university's Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work, "Many children who are exposed to their parent's domestic violence remain constantly vigilant and perpetually anxious, fearful that any conflict may escalate into assault. Therefore, it is not surprising that decades later, when they are adults, those with a history of [parental domestic violence] have an elevated prevalence of anxiety disorders."

The findings were published recently in the Journal of Family Violence.

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On the positive side, more than three in five adults who experienced chronic violence between their parents during childhood were in excellent mental health, happy/satisfied with their life and highly social, the researchers noted.

"We were encouraged to discover that so many adults overcame their exposure to this early adversity and are free of mental illness and thriving," said study co-author Shalhevet Attar-Schwartz, a professor in the School of Social Work and Social Welfare at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, in Israel.

"Our analysis indicated that social support was an important factor," she added. "Among those who had experienced [parental domestic violence], those who had more social support had much higher odds of being in excellent mental health."

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More information

The U.S. Office on Women's Health has more on the effects of domestic violence on children.

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