themighty logo

These Researchers Want to Focus on Preventing Childhood Trauma Through Public Health


It’s no secret childhood trauma can affect your mental health either as a child or later in life. There are many individual treatment efforts after trauma has already occurred but few resources to prevent trauma or identify which children are at a higher risk. A study in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) wants to change this. It suggests that childhood trauma, which is much more common than many believe, should be considered a public health issue. 

Unlike other studies on childhood trauma that only ask adults to recall past events, this study’s researchers spoke with 1,420 children between ages 9-16 annually and again up to four times in young adulthood. They found that by age 16, nearly 31 percent of study participants experienced one traumatic event, 22.5 percent experienced two and nearly 15 percent experienced three or more traumas. 

The researchers then analyzed how many participants developed mental illnesses, addictions and other substance abuse issues into young adulthood. They also measured financial health, completing education, engaging in risky or criminal behavior and effective social skills. Experiencing more than one traumatic event was associated with higher rates of difficulty in all of these areas. 

Not only were rates of developing a mental illness higher, people who experienced more trauma were more likely to struggle transitioning into adulthood as measured by outcomes like difficulty holding a job and social isolation. The association between childhood trauma and issues in adulthood persisted even after considering other factors like low socioeconomic status or family dysfunction. The researchers wrote: 

Our findings suggest that childhood trauma has broad effects on adult functioning — ranging from psychiatric status to financial and educational functioning — and these could not simply be attributed to preexisting psychiatric vulnerability or other adversities and hardships in the child’s developmental context.

While not all trauma can be avoided, the researchers noted that some forms are. The most common types of trauma reported were witnessing a traumatic event, experiencing life-threatening accidental injuries and learning about an “extreme stressor” that affected a loved one. Other traumas were categorized as violent (physical abuse, violent death of a loved one); sexual trauma (rape and abuse); and other traumas (diagnosed with a serious illness, natural disasters).

From this perspective, researchers suggest looking at childhood trauma through the lens of public health. Public health is “the science of protecting and improving the health of people and their communities,” according to the CDC Foundation. Public health works to encourage healthy lifestyles, and it focuses on prevention and early intervention.

Treating trauma as a public health issue could lead to the development of programs for at-risk children to reduce their trauma exposure, even before a trauma occurs. This in turn could reduce the negative impact of childhood trauma that can last into adulthood.

“Together, these findings provide a clear mandate for those concerned with increasing opportunities, reducing distress and avoiding morbidity across the lifespan,” researchers wrote in the study’s conclusion. “Interventions or policies that broadly target this largely preventable cluster of childhood experiences may have multifaceted effects on health and well-being that persist across the lifespan.”

Photo via Getty Images/Ridofranz