News Release

Two thirds of childhood physical abuse survivors are psychologically flourishing in adulthood

Barriers to achieving complete mental health include a lack of social support, chronic pain, and having a lifetime history of mental illness, such as depression, anxiety, and substance use disorders.

Peer-Reviewed Publication

University of Toronto

New research published online in Children and Youth Services Review found that approximately two thirds (63%) of adult survivors of childhood physical abuse are in complete mental health, also known as psychologically flourishing.

“This is a very hopeful finding for survivors of childhood physical abuse,” says lead author Esme Fuller-Thomson, professor at the University of Toronto’s Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work and director of the institute for Life Course and Aging. “Our findings indicate that many individuals with a history of physical abuse go on to achieve high levels life satisfaction and psychological well-being. These results highlight the incredible resiliency among this population.”

Researchers compared a nationally representative sample of 853 Canadians with a history of childhood physical abuse to 17,216 respondents with no history of abuse using data drawn from Statistics Canada’s Canadian Community Health Survey – Mental Health. To be considered in complete mental health, participants had to report: 1) freedom from mental illness (such as substance use disorders, depression, anxiety, or suicidality) in the previous year, 2) almost daily happiness or life satisfaction in the past month and 3) high levels of social and psychological well-being in the past month. Researchers intentionally excluded any respondents who had been exposed to childhood sexual abuse or parental domestic violence in order to untangle the negative impact of childhood physical abuse from other, often co-occurring, childhood adversities.

While the findings are hopeful, the study still found a greater percentage of psychological flourishing among those without a history of physical abuse in childhood. “75 % of the general population reported being in complete mental health compared to only 63% of survivors of childhood physical abuse,” says co-author Kandace Ryckman, a graduate of University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health. “We hope these findings can support the development of more effective interventions for this population, and ultimately promote well-being among survivors.”

“Respondents who had been depressed at any point in their life were considerably less likely to be psychologically flourishing,” says co-author Andie MacNeil, research assistance at the Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work, University of Toronto. “This emphasizes the importance of trauma-informed mental health interventions for this population. Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and mindfulness-based interventions have a robust evidence base for improving mental health outcomes among survivors of abuse.”

Chronic pain also had a significant effect on the relationship between physical abuse and complete mental health. “Examining complete mental health encourages a more holistic understanding of mental health that moves beyond the presence or absence of mental illness.” says Fuller-Thomson “It’s essential to consider physical factors, like chronic pain, when supporting the mental health of abuse survivors.”

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