14 Mar 2023

Child sexual abuse can double risk of problems in adulthood - NZ-based study

5:55 pm on 14 March 2023
Domestic and Family Violence. Little Girl in Fear of Domestic Abuse.

Abuse survivors were between 2.5 and four times more likely to have attempted suicide in their lifetime. Photo: 123RF

A study of 937 people over many years shows victims of child sexual abuse are likely to suffer from multiple problems in later life.

The Dunedin Study, by the University of Otago, has followed the development of the same people through now to past the age of 45.

The latest findings, published in the Journal of Development and Psychopathology, reveal 19 percent reported - retrospectively at the age of 26 - unwanted sexual contact before the age of 16.

They were one-and-a-half to two times more likely than their peers to experience adverse outcomes as an adult, including alcohol consumption, oral health issues, mental health issues, sexually transmitted diseases, personal relationship difficulties, financial problems and anti-social behaviour.

Abuse survivors were also between 2.5 and four times more likely to have attempted suicide in their lifetime.

Lead author Dr Hayley Guiney of the Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Research Unit said while not all survivors experienced the same negative outcomes, the study found the chances of experiencing difficulties "across multiple life domains" increased with more severe types of abuse.

"When abuse survivors tell their own stories, they often talk about the impacts of childhood sexual abuse being felt across many different life domains in adulthood. Our research aligns with these personal testimonies, reflecting the considerable individual and societal burden of abuse."

A research project tracking 1000 New Zealanders from birth based its first offices in a condemned manse. Now, 45 years later, it has opened its own building.

The Dunedin Study's current headquarters, opened in 2017. Photo: RNZ / Ian Telfer

Guiney believed it was important to understand how multifaceted and long-lasting the impacts of childhood sexual abuse can be.

She hoped the research highlighted the value in interventions designed to prevent abuse in the first place; early interventions to help survivors as much and as quickly as possible; and the inclusion of multiple domains of functioning into assessment and treatment.

"Intervening early and supporting survivors is likely to help them avoid the potential long-term effects of those negative experiences.'

"However, it is important to remember that negative childhood experiences are not a person's destiny. A significant number of survivors do not continue to experience problems into adulthood."

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