Study looks at impact of child abuse

Hayley Guiney
Hayley Guiney
Nearly one in five participants in the Dunedin Study have retrospectively reported suffering unwanted sexual contact before the age of 16.

Lead author and Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Research Unit research fellow Dr Hayley Guiney said the unit’s latest study aimed to better understand the long-term impacts of childhood sexual abuse and investigate survivors’ experiences across a long period of time, from young adulthood to middle age.

"We also wanted to find out whether people who had experienced childhood sexual abuse were more likely to have persistent difficulties across adulthood in multiple life domains, including physical health, mental health, sexual health, interpersonal relationships, economic wellbeing and antisocial behaviour."

Previous research had found victims of childhood sexual abuse were more likely to suffer difficulties across multiple aspects of their lives as adults, she said.

But the latest study was the first time the impact had been shown over a long period.

The study has been analysing medical information of about 937 Dunedin participants from birth to age 45, and found 19% of the cohort had retrospectively reported suffering unwanted sexual contact before age 16.

As a group, these survivors were 1.5 to 2 times more likely than their peers to persistently experience adverse outcomes in adulthood, Dr Guiney said.

"These long-term difficulties included smoking and alcohol consumption, systemic inflammation, oral health, mental health, sexually transmitted diseases, personal relationships, finances and antisocial behaviour."

Survivors were also between 2.5 and 4 times more likely than their peers to have attempted suicide, and the highest risk was among those who experienced more severe abuse, she said.

"While not all survivors experienced the same negative outcomes, we did find the chances of experiencing difficulties across multiple life domains increased with more severe types of abuse.

"When abuse survivors tell their own stories, they often talk about the impacts of childhood sexual abuse being felt across many different life domains in adulthood.

"Our research aligns with these personal testimonies, reflecting the considerable individual and societal burden of abuse."

Dr Guiney believed it was important to understand how multi-faceted and long-lasting the impacts of childhood sexual abuse could be.

She hoped the research highlighted the value of interventions designed to prevent abuse in the first place; early interventions to help survivors as much and as quickly as possible; and the inclusion of multiple domains of functioning into assessment and treatment.

"However, it is important to remember that negative childhood experiences are not a person’s destiny.

"A significant number of survivors do not continue to experience problems into adulthood," she said.