“Hopeful” Findings – Two Thirds of Childhood Physical Abuse Survivors Are Psychologically Flourishing in Adulthood

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A new study reports that around 63% of adult survivors of childhood physical abuse are in complete mental health, indicating significant resilience in this population. Despite the hopeful findings, the study also highlights that those who had a history of physical abuse were less likely to be psychologically flourishing compared to the general population, thereby emphasizing the importance of trauma-informed mental health interventions and considering physical factors such as chronic pain in supporting the mental health of abuse survivors.

Obstacles to attaining complete mental health include insufficient social backing, persistent discomfort, and a lifelong background of psychiatric conditions, including depression, anxiety, and substance abuse disorders.

A recently published study in the Children and Youth Services Review has revealed that nearly 63% of adults who endured physical abuse during their childhood are now in a state of complete mental health, often referred to as psychological 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 of 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 the 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 assistant 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 behavioral 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.”

Reference: “Pathways to recovery among survivors of childhood physical abuse: What is important to promote complete mental health” by Esme Fuller-Thomson, Kandace Ryckman, Andie MacNeil and Sarah Brennenstuhl, 23 May 2023, Children and Youth Services Review.
DOI: 10.1016/j.childyouth.2023.107009

The study was funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

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