The relationship between child abuse, parental divorce, and lifetime mental disorders and suicidality in a nationally representative adult sample

Child Abuse Negl. 2009 Mar;33(3):139-47. doi: 10.1016/j.chiabu.2008.12.009. Epub 2009 Mar 26.


Objectives: To determine how the experiences of child abuse and parental divorce are related to long-term mental health outcomes using a nationally representative adult sample after adjusting for sociodemographic variables and parental psychopathology.

Methods: Data were drawn from the National Comorbidity Survey (NCS, n=5,877; age 15-54 years; response rate 82.4%). Logistic regression models were used to determine the odds of experiencing lifetime psychiatric disorders and suicidal ideation and attempts.

Results: Parental divorce alone was associated with some psychiatric disorders after adjusting for sociodemographic variables (AOR ranging from 1.30 to 2.37), while child abuse alone was associated with psychiatric disorders (AOR ranging from 1.39 to 6.07) and suicidal ideation (AOR=2.08; 95% CI=1.57-2.77) and attempts (AOR=1.54; 95% CI=1.02-2.31) after adjusting for sociodemographic variables. However, having experienced both parental divorce and child abuse together resulted in significantly increased odds for lifetime PTSD (AOR=9.87; 95% CI=6.69-14.55), conduct disorder (AOR=4.01; 95% CI=2.92-5.51) and suicide attempts (AOR=2.74; 95% CI=1.84-4.08) compared to having experienced either parental divorce or child abuse alone. These results were attenuated when further adjusting for parental psychopathology.

Conclusions: When the experience of parental divorce is accompanied with child abuse, the associations with some poor mental health outcomes are significantly greater compared to the impact of either parental divorce or child abuse on its own. Therefore, parental divorce is an additional childhood adversity that significantly contributes to poor mental health outcomes especially when in combination with child abuse. Parental psychopathology attenuated these relationships suggesting that it may be one possible mechanism to explain the relationships between child abuse, parental divorce, and psychiatric disorders and suicide attempts.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Child Abuse / statistics & numerical data*
  • Divorce / statistics & numerical data*
  • Female
  • Health Surveys
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Mental Disorders / epidemiology*
  • Mental Health
  • Middle Aged
  • Prevalence
  • Risk Factors
  • Suicide, Attempted / statistics & numerical data*
  • United States / epidemiology
  • Young Adult