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Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2012 Nov;69(11):1151-60. doi: 10.1001/archgenpsychiatry.2011.2277.

Childhood adversities and first onset of psychiatric disorders in a national sample of US adolescents.

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  • 1Division of General Pediatrics, Children's Hospital Boston, MA, USA.



Although childhood adversities (CAs) are known to be highly co-occurring, most research examines their associations with psychiatric disorders one at a time. However, recent evidence from adult studies suggests that the associations of multiple CAs with psychiatric disorders are nonadditive, arguing for the importance of multivariate analysis of multiple CAs. To our knowledge, no attempt has been made to perform a similar kind of analysis among children or adolescents.


To examine the multivariate associations of 12 CAs with first onset of psychiatric disorders in a national sample of US adolescents.


A US national survey of adolescents (age range, 13-17 years) assessing DSM-IV anxiety, mood, behavior, and substance use disorders and CAs. The CAs include parental loss (death, divorce, and other separations), maltreatment (neglect and physical, sexual, and emotional abuse), and parental maladjustment (violence, criminality, substance abuse, and psychopathology), as well as economic adversity.


Dual-frame household-school samples.


In total, 6483 adolescent-parent pairs.


Lifetime DSM-IV disorders assessed using the World Health Organization Composite International Diagnostic Interview.


Overall, exposure to at least 1 CA was reported by 58.3% of adolescents, among whom 59.7% reported multiple CAs. The CAs reflecting maladaptive family functioning were more strongly associated than other CAs with the onset of psychiatric disorders. The best-fitting model included terms for the type and number of CAs and distinguished between maladaptive family functioning and other CAs. The CAs predicted behavior disorders most strongly and fear disorders least strongly. The joint associations of multiple CAs were subadditive. The population-attributable risk proportions across DSM-IV disorder classes ranged from 15.7% for fear disorders to 40.7% for behavior disorders. The CAs were associated with 28.2% of all onsets of psychiatric disorders.


Childhood adversities are common, highly co-occurring, and strongly associated with the onset of psychiatric disorders among US adolescents. The subadditive multivariate associations of CAs with the onset of psychiatric disorders have implications for targeting interventions to reduce exposure to CAs and to mitigate the harmful effects of CAs to improve population mental health.

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