Objective: This research examined linkages between exposure to childhood sexual abuse (CSA) and childhood physical punishment/abuse (CPA) and mental health issues in early adulthood.
Method: The investigation analyzed data from a birth cohort of over 1,000 New Zealand young adults studied to the age of 25.
Results: Exposure to CSA and CPA was associated with increased risks of later mental disorders including depression, anxiety disorder, conduct/anti-social personality disorder, substance dependence, suicidal ideation, and suicide attempts at ages 16-25. Control for social, family, and individual factors reduced the associations between CPA and mental health outcomes to the point of statistical non-significance. However, there was a consistent finding for CSA to remain associated with increased risks of later mental health problems. After adjustment, those exposed to CSA including attempted or completed sexual penetration had rates of disorder that were 2.4 times higher than those not exposed to CSA. Those exposed to harsh or abusive physical punishment had rates of disorder that were 1.5 times higher than those exposed to no or occasional physical punishment. It was estimated that exposure to CSA accounted for approximately 13% of the mental health problems experienced by the cohort. Findings showed that exposure to CPA had only weak effects on later mental health. It was estimated that exposure to CPA accounted for approximately 5% of the mental health problems experienced by the cohort.
Conclusions: Exposure to CSA was associated with consistent increases in risks of later mental health problems. Exposure to CPA had weaker and less consistent effects on later mental health. These findings suggest that much of the association between CPA and later mental health reflects the general family context in which CPA occurs, whereas this is less the case for CSA.