Psychological Medicine

Research Article

Childhood adversity and adult psychiatric disorder in the US National Comorbidity Survey

R. C. KESSLER a1 , C. G. DAVIS a1 and K. S. KENDLER a1
a1 From the Department of Health Care Policy, Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA; Department of Psychology, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI; and Department of Psychiatry, Medical College of Virginia, Richmond, VA, USA


Background. Survey data are presented on the associations between retrospectively reported childhood adversities and subsequent onset and persistence of DSM-III-R disorders.

Methods. Data come from the US National Comorbidity Survey, a large survey of the US household population.

Results. Twenty-six adversities were considered, including loss events (e.g. parental divorce), parental psychopathologies (e.g. maternal depression), interpersonal traumas (e.g. rape) and other adversities (e.g. natural disaster). These adversities were consistently associated with onset, but not persistence, of DSM-III-R mood disorders, anxiety disorders, addictive disorders and acting out disorders. Most bivariate associations with onset attenuated in models that controlled for clustering of adversities and for lifetime co-morbidities among psychiatric disorders. Multivariate effects of adversities in logistic models were additive, which means that they have multiplicative effects on probability of disorder onset. Adversities showed little specificity. An analysis of time decay showed that the effects of childhood adversities on disorder onset persist beyond childhood.

Conclusions. The existence of strong clustering among childhood adversities and lifetime co-morbidity among adult disorders means that caution is needed in interpreting the results of previous single-adversity single-disorder studies as documenting unique effects of specific childhood adversities on specific adult disorders. Future studies need to assess a broader range of adversities and disorders and to explore the existence and effects of commonly occurring adversity clusters. Replication is needed to verify that the effects of childhood adversities are mostly on first onset rather than on the creation of vulnerabilities that lead to increased risk of persistence.


Address for correspondence: Professor Ronald C. Kessler, Department of Health Care Policy, Harvard Medical School, 180 Longwood Avenue, Boston, MA 02115, USA.