, Volume 40, Issue 10, pp 769-777
Date: 07 Oct 2005

Childhood adversities as risk factors for adult mental disorders

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The sex-specific role of stressful or traumatic childhood experiences and adverse circumstances in developing adulthood mental disorders is complex and still in need of comprehensive research.


Within the Health 2000 project in Finland, a representative sample of 4,076 subjects aged 30–64 years were investigated to examine associations between a set of retrospectively self-reported adverse environmental factors during childhood (0–16 years) and mental disorders diagnosed in the past 12 months by the Munich Composite International Diagnostic Interview.


Of the 60% of adults reporting at least one childhood adversity, 17% had a current (past 12 months) mental disorder, compared to 10% of the non-reporters. A moderate dose–response relationship between the total number of adversities and current disorders was observed. Paternal mental health problems associated particularly strongly with male depressive disorders (OR 4.46), and maternal mental health problems with female depressive disorders (OR 3.20). Although seldom reported, maternal alcohol problems associated with alcohol use disorders in both sexes. Being bullied at school and childhood family discord predicted a variety of adulthood disorders in both sexes. All these four adversity items were more typical for depressive disorders with an earlier onset. Among females, more adversities were associated with mental disorders and their statistical significance was greater than among males.


There are marked sex differences and several diagnosis-related patterns in the associations between reported childhood experiences and environmental circumstances and adulthood mental disorders. The impact of adversities is probably composed of a wide range of factors from direct causal associations to complex, interacting environmental effects. Variations in the reported associations reflect the differing genetic and environmental transmission mechanisms of mental disorders.