First national study of child maltreatment begins

First national study of child maltreatment begins

By Kerrie Gottliebsen

Child maltreatment takes many forms.  From emotional and physical abuse to sexual assault,  neglect and exposure to domestic violence. Much of childhood abuse takes place behind closed doors and paves the way for a life of detrimental lifelong health outcomes.

A $2.3 million study funded by the National Health and Medical Research Council of the prevalence and impacts of child maltreatment in Australia is underway, led by QUT Professor Ben Mathews with a team of international researchers who will interview 10,000 people between the ages of 16 and 86.

Health outcomes associated with child maltreatment include depression, anxiety, self-harm and suicidality, substance use, including tobacco, alcohol and other drugs, chronic physical health conditions, including obesity, cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

Co-researcher Associate Professor James Scott from The University of Queensland said that reducing the prevalence of child maltreatment offers the greatest opportunity to prevent mental illness, suicide and other serious health problems in the Australian population.

Tweddle CEO Ms Jacquie O’Brien emphasised the need to understand the prevalence and long-term health impacts of child maltreatment as well as patterns of offending and the financial cost to the community, which according to Professor Mathew, may run into billions of dollars.

Tweddle has focussed its clinical model on prevention and early intervention for many years, and specifically on understanding parental Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and their intergenerational impacts on babies and toddlers.

During Infant Mental Health Awareness Week 2019, Tweddle screened RESILIENCE, a one-hour documentary that delves into the science of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), now understood to be one of the leading causes of everything from heart disease and cancer to substance abuse and depression. Extremely stressful experiences in childhood can alter brain development and have lifelong effects on health and behaviour.

While moderate, short-lived stress responses in the body can promote growth, unrelieved activation of a child’s stress management system in the absence of protective adult can create lifelong health issues as documented in The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study.

Another ground-breaking study into the impacts of child maltreatment was the 1990s research by Dr. Vince Felitti and Dr. Bob Anda which asked 17,500 adults about their history of exposure to what they called “Adverse Childhood Experiences,” or ACEs. Those include physical, emotional, or sexual abuse; physical or emotional neglect; parental mental illness, substance dependence, incarceration; parental separation or divorce; or domestic violence. 

The evidence pointed to ACES impacting not only brain structure and function but the immune system, developing hormonal systems, DNA, and a range of adult health problems, including diabetes, hypertension, stroke, obesity, and some forms of cancer.

How does the stressful experience of child maltreatment effect a lifetime of health? The hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis, the brain’s and body’s stress response system that governs our fight-or-flight response, releases stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol into the baby’s system. Children are especially sensitive to this repeated stress activation, because their brains and bodies are just developing.

Researchers around the world agree that abuse and adversity in early childhood produces long term inequality in ability, achievement, health and adult success. Policy makers and leaders are learning from recent scientific discoveries about development in the first 1000 days of a child’s life to shape the future health of communities.

The Harvard Centre on the Developing Child assert that policy and practice should concentrate on three key principles; Supporting responsive relationships for children and adults, strengthen life skills and Reduce sources of stress in the lives of children and families.

Services like Tweddle’s support the reduction of parental stress in the critical first 1000 days (conception to age 2) which in turn improves chronic and intergenerational health outcomes for children. As experts and practitioners are proving, what is predictable is preventable. 

Tweddle look forward to this important study bringing together a multidisciplinary team of leading researchers for the benefit of child welfare, public health and the prevention of child maltreatment, mental illness, suicide and other serious health problems.

Research team members are:

Professor Ben Mathews (QUT), Professor Rosana Pacella (University of Chichester and QUT), Professor Michael Dunne (QUT), Associate Professor James Scott (The University of Queensland), Professor David Finkelhor (University of New Hampshire), Dr Franziska Meinck (University of Oxford), Professor Daryl Higgins (Australian Catholic University), Dr Holly Erskine (The University of Queensland), and Dr Hannah Thomas (The University of Queensland). 

For further information, contact Professor Ben Mathews b.mathews@qut.edu.au


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