High levels of childhood trauma major contributor to mental ill-health in young people

High levels of childhood trauma major contributor to mental ill-health in young people

24 May 2023

The vast majority (84%) of young people attending Australian headspace centres, have experienced some form of childhood trauma, new Orygen research has found.

Moreover, 67% of young people reported experiencing multiple types of traumas, and 39% reported trauma in the severe to extreme range.

Trauma is a deeply distressing experience which can be emotionally, mentally, or physically overwhelming for a young person.

Researchers examined data from 775 young people aged 12-15 years who had received mental health support from headspace between 2011 and 2012.

Associate Professor Sarah Bendall, who led the study, said many people experience some form of trauma during their childhood, and unfortunately, this can have a lasting effect on their mental health and well-being.

Research suggests that childhood trauma can increase the risk of developing mental health disorders, such as depression, anxiety, and even psychosis. It can also contribute to an individual's risk for suicide, substance abuse, and personality disorders.”

A large number of participants in the study had experienced multiple types of traumas – childhood sexual, physical or emotional abuse and physical or emotional neglect – with childhood emotional abuse being the most common type of trauma reported by young people.

The research showed the more traumatic experiences someone had when they were younger, the more likely it was that they would have a combination of mental health issues, rather than just one,” Associate Professor Bendall said.

"It is important to look into the prevalence of trauma among young people who are seeking mental health support because if we can identify trauma early, and provide the appropriate interventions, we can hopefully prevent more serious mental health issues in the future,” she said.

The study also revealed the importance of equipping and supporting the youth mental health sector to provide trauma-informed care to those seeking support.

Associate Professor Bendall said, the research findings highlight the need for a systematic response to trauma in youth mental health services.

The Australian Government has identified that trauma-informed care – an approach to providing treatment that takes into account the needs of people who have experienced trauma – should be used in all health services to address the needs of those affected by trauma.”

However, this has not yet eventuated in youth mental health services,” Associate Professor Bendall said.

"The high levels of trauma experienced by young people in this study demonstrate how vital it is for us to focus on providing an evidence-based approach to trauma-informed care.

“This will help mental health services address and support the unique needs of young people affected by trauma,” she said.

The study was published in Australian & New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry

Orygen is currently working with the Victorian Government and other leading Victorian mental health providers to implement the Royal Commission's recommendation to establish a Statewide Trauma Service. This service will provide the best possible mental health and wellbeing outcomes for people with lived experience of trauma.