Context: Evidence for an association between child maltreatment and later psychopathology heavily relies on retrospective reports of maltreatment. The few studies using prospective ascertainment of child maltreatment show weaker associations, raising the possibility that it is not maltreatment, but rather the memory of maltreatment, that raises the risk of later mental disorders.
Objectives: To estimate associations between prospectively ascertained child maltreatment and a wide range of subsequently measured DSM-IV mental disorders and to show the influence of retrospectively reported maltreatment in the comparison group on these associations.
Design: Retrospective cohort study.
Setting: Nationally representative New Zealand community.
Participants: Respondents aged 16 to 27 years (n = 2144) from a mental health survey, 221 of whom were identified as having records on a national child protection agency database.
Main outcome measures: Twelve-month and lifetime prevalence of individual DSM-IV mood, anxiety, and substance use disorders, and disorder groups assessed with the World Health Organization Composite International Diagnostic Interview.
Results: After adjusting for demographic and socioeconomic correlates, child protection agency history was associated with several individual mental disorders, mental disorder comorbidity, and all mental disorder groups, both 12-month and lifetime. Odds of 12-month posttraumatic stress disorder were 5.12 (95% confidence interval [CI], 2.42-10.83); of any 12-month mood disorder, 1.86 (95% CI, 1.12-3.08); of any anxiety disorder, 2.41 (95% CI, 1.47-3.97); and of any substance use disorder, 1.71 (95% CI, 1.01-2.88). These associations increased in magnitude when those who retrospectively reported child maltreatment were removed from the comparison group.
Conclusions: Prospectively ascertained child maltreatment is significantly associated with a range of subsequent mood, anxiety, and substance use disorders, indicating that maltreatment, not just the memory of maltreatment, is associated with subsequent psychopathology. There is a need for both targeted mental health interventions with the present and past clients of child welfare agencies and for concerted population-level strategies to meet the needs of the many other children who experience maltreatment.