New study examines link between adult mental health and child abuse

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Responses to reports of child abuse in the United States increased by 8.4% between 2014 and 2018. Child abuse can include emotional, physical or sexual abuse, neglect or exploitation. The link between parental or caregiver mental health and child maltreatment has been established through research; caregivers with mental illness are at increased risk of child abuse and can negatively impact a child’s development and well-being throughout their life. Individuals and families living under the stress of poverty experience the highest rates of mental illness, including trauma, stress, social exclusion and family conflict. Mental health disorders also contribute to poverty, creating a cyclical pattern.

A new study from ColoradoSPH examines county-level relationships between child maltreatment and adult mental health, and how these relationships are affected by county economic distress and degree of rurality. In rural areas, poverty rates are higher than in urban areas and mental health services are more difficult to access. The researchers linked multiple data sources to conduct the study, which included data from 3,015 counties. They found that reports of child maltreatment increased by 20.1% for every half day of poor mental health in counties in metropolitan areas, 11.7% in non-metro counties, and 13% in counties rural. They also found a relationship between the number of poor mental health days and increased rates of reporting child abuse across counties.

Significance for public health

While one in five caregivers reported having had a mental illness in the past year, only 43% of adults with mental illness and 63% with serious mental illness said they had received treatment in 2018. This study found that an average change in a mental disorder of fewer health days per month in a county would correspond to 24-40% lower child maltreatment reporting rates. This indicates that there is a need to improve access to mental health services to support adult caregivers and reduce rates of child maltreatment reports.






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Colorado School of Public Health|


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ColoradoSPH Research News







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