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      Risks for Mental Illness in Indigenous Australian Children: A Descriptive Study Demonstrating High Levels of Vulnerability

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          Translated abstract

          Policy Points:

          • The developmental origins understanding of mental illness suggests the possibility of prevention, through addressing childhood adversities.

          • More than 43% of Indigenous Australian children aged 6 to 10 years have 6 or more risk factors for mental illness in adulthood, and 23% are experiencing current psychological distress.

          • Substantial risk is already present in infancy (eg, 67% exposed to 3 or more stressful family life events, and 42.5% are not living with both birth parents).

          • An integrated service system response that can both offer high‐level therapeutic services and address associated multiple adversities, from conception to late adolescence, is urgently needed to address current psychological distress in Indigenous Australian children and to reduce the future burden of mental illness.


          Mental illness is a high source of disease burden across the globe. Mental illness is now understood as largely developmental, with its genesis at least in part in adverse childhood experiences. We sought to estimate the prevalence of childhood risks for poor mental health in Indigenous Australian children, noting that Indigenous Australians by virtue of their history of traumatic colonization and dispossession, child removal, and racism are potentially at greater risk.


          We conducted a descriptive study of the modifiable risks and adversities associated with mental illness in Australian Indigenous children (infancy to 10 years), using data from the Longitudinal Study of Indigenous Children (LSIC), a cohort of 1,671 infants enrolled in 2008 and followed up annually. Risk factors of interest were identified from a comprehensive literature review of childhood determinants of adult mental illness by Fryers and Brugha (2013). The age‐category prevalence of individual risks and a multiple‐risk score were computed using data extracted from 6 waves of LSIC.


          The analytic data comprised 8,378 person‐observations from the first 6 waves. Children in LSIC experience high rates of adversities. In utero, nearly 50% were exposed to smoking and 22% to alcohol. As infants, 42.5% were not living with both birth parents. Over two‐thirds of survey children were in households that had experienced, in the previous 12 months, 3 or more major life events; 22% to 26% lived in households with a drug or alcohol problem; and 18% were exposed to domestic violence (41% were ever‐exposed to age 10). At school, nearly 40% of children were bullied. Over 45% of children aged 6 to 10 years were exposed to 6 or more risks for mental illness. Few children (< 2%) were exposed to low parental warmth and, despite the high exposure to adversities, less than 5% of children report low self‐confidence. This suggests considerable resilience. More than 1 in 4 children had conduct problems in the clinical range and more than 1 in 5 were experiencing high psychological distress.


          Indigenous children in Australia face extreme levels of multiple disadvantage, exposing many to current psychological distress and high risk of developing mental illness, despite considerable resilience. For policymakers, this is a call for preventive action targeting the multiple risk factors already present in childhood. An integrated service system offering culturally appropriate, high‐quality early childhood education services, linked to infant, child, adolescent, and family mental health services, and intensive family support services will be crucial in addressing this public health crisis.

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          Most cited references 25

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          The interrelatedness of multiple forms of childhood abuse, neglect, and household dysfunction.

          Childhood abuse and other adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) have historically been studied individually, and relatively little is known about the co-occurrence of these events. The purpose of this study is to examine the degree to which ACEs co-occur as well as the nature of their co-occurrence. We used data from 8,629 adult members of a health plan who completed a survey about 10 ACEs which included: childhood abuse (emotional, physical, and sexual), neglect (emotional and physical), witnessing domestic violence, parental marital discord, and living with substance abusing, mentally ill, or criminal household members. The bivariate relationship between each of these 10 ACEs was assessed, and multivariate linear regression models were used to describe the interrelatedness of ACEs after adjusting for demographic factors. Two-thirds of participants reported at least one ACE; 81%-98% of respondents who had experienced one ACE reported at least one additional ACE (median: 87%). The presence of one ACE significantly increased the prevalence of having additional ACEs, elevating the adjusted odds by 2 to 17.7 times (median: 2.8). The observed number of respondents with high ACE scores was notably higher than the expected number under the assumption of independence of ACEs (p <.0001), confirming the statistical interrelatedness of ACEs. The study provides strong evidence that ACEs are interrelated rather than occurring independently. Therefore, collecting information about exposure to other ACEs is advisable for studies that focus on the consequences of a specific ACE. Assessment of multiple ACEs allows for the potential assessment of a graded relationship between these childhood exposures and health and social outcomes.
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            Cumulative risk and child development.

            Childhood multiple risk factor exposure exceeds the adverse developmental impacts of singular exposures. Multiple risk factor exposure may also explain why sociodemographic variables (e.g., poverty) can have adverse consequences. Most research on multiple risk factor exposure has relied upon cumulative risk (CR) as the measure of multiple risk. CR is constructed by dichotomizing each risk factor exposure (0 = no risk; 1 = risk) and then summing the dichotomous scores. Despite its widespread use in developmental psychology and elsewhere, CR has several shortcomings: Risk is designated arbitrarily; data on risk intensity are lost; and the index is additive, precluding the possibility of statistical interactions between risk factors. On the other hand, theoretically more compelling multiple risk metrics prove untenable because of low statistical power, extreme higher order interaction terms, low robustness, and collinearity among risk factors. CR multiple risk metrics are parsimonious, are statistically sensitive even with small samples, and make no assumptions about the relative strengths of multiple risk factors or their collinearity. CR also fits well with underlying theoretical models (e.g., Bronfenbrenner's, 1979, bioecological model; McEwen's, 1998, allostasis model of chronic stress; and Ellis, Figueredo, Brumbach, & Schlomer's, 2009, developmental evolutionary theory) concerning why multiple risk factor exposure is more harmful than singular risk exposure. We review the child CR literature, comparing CR to alternative multiple risk measurement models. We also discuss strengths and weaknesses of developmental CR research, offering analytic and theoretical suggestions to strengthen this growing area of scholarship. Finally, we highlight intervention and policy implications of CR and child development research and theory. © 2013 American Psychological Association
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              Childhood abuse, household dysfunction, and the risk of attempted suicide throughout the life span: findings from the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study.

              Suicide is a leading cause of death in the United States, but identifying persons at risk is difficult. Thus, the US surgeon general has made suicide prevention a national priority. An expanding body of research suggests that childhood trauma and adverse experiences can lead to a variety of negative health outcomes, including attempted suicide among adolescents and adults. To examine the relationship between the risk of suicide attempts and adverse childhood experiences and the number of such experiences (adverse childhood experiences [ACE] score). A retrospective cohort study of 17 337 adult health maintenance organization members (54% female; mean [SD] age, 57 [15.3] years) who attended a primary care clinic in San Diego, Calif, within a 3-year period (1995-1997) and completed a survey about childhood abuse and household dysfunction, suicide attempts (including age at first attempt), and multiple other health-related issues. Self-reported suicide attempts, compared by number of adverse childhood experiences, including emotional, physical, and sexual abuse; household substance abuse, mental illness, and incarceration; and parental domestic violence, separation, or divorce. The lifetime prevalence of having at least 1 suicide attempt was 3.8%. Adverse childhood experiences in any category increased the risk of attempted suicide 2- to 5-fold. The ACE score had a strong, graded relationship to attempted suicide during childhood/adolescence and adulthood (P<.001). Compared with persons with no such experiences (prevalence of attempted suicide, 1.1%), the adjusted odds ratio of ever attempting suicide among persons with 7 or more experiences (35.2%) was 31.1 (95% confidence interval, 20.6-47.1). Adjustment for illicit drug use, depressed affect, and self-reported alcoholism reduced the strength of the relationship between the ACE score and suicide attempts, suggesting partial mediation of the adverse childhood experience-suicide attempt relationship by these factors. The population-attributable risk fractions for 1 or more experiences were 67%, 64%, and 80% for lifetime, adult, and childhood/adolescent suicide attempts, respectively. A powerful graded relationship exists between adverse childhood experiences and risk of attempted suicide throughout the life span. Alcoholism, depressed affect, and illicit drug use, which are strongly associated with such experiences, appear to partially mediate this relationship. Because estimates of the attributable risk fraction caused by these experiences were large, prevention of these experiences and the treatment of persons affected by them may lead to progress in suicide prevention.

                Author and article information

                Milbank Q
                Milbank Q
                The Milbank Quarterly
                John Wiley and Sons Inc. (Hoboken )
                06 June 2017
                June 2017
                : 95
                : 2 ( doiID: 10.1111/milq.2017.95.issue-2 )
                : 319-357
                [ 1 ] School of Health Sciences University of South Australia
                Author notes
                [* ] Address correspondence to: Leonie Segal, Chief Investigator, Health Economics & Social Policy Research Group, Centre for Population Health Research, University of South Australia, GPO Box 2471, Adelaide SA 5001, Australia (email: Leonie.Segal@ ).
                © 2017 Milbank Memorial Fund. Published by Wiley Periodicals Inc.

                This is an open access article under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits use, distribution and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.

                Page count
                Figures: 2, Tables: 4, Pages: 39, Words: 9539
                Funded by: National Health and Medical Research Council
                Award ID: 631947
                Funded by: SA Health Partnership Grant
                Award ID: APP1055351
                Original Investigation
                Original Investigations
                Custom metadata
                June 2017
                Converter:WILEY_ML3GV2_TO_NLMPMC version:5.1.9 mode:remove_FC converted:18.09.2017

                Social policy & Welfare

                australia, multiple disadvantage, indigenous children, mental health


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