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For Better Adult Mental and Relational Health, Boost Positive Childhood Experiences

Positive childhood experiences, such as supportive family interactions, caring relationships with friends, and connections in the community, are associated with reductions in chances of adult depression and poor mental health, and increases in the chances of having healthy relationships in adulthood, a new study led by Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health researchers suggests. This association was true even among those with a history of adverse childhood experiences.

The findings, published September 9 in  JAMA Pediatrics, could encourage public health efforts and policies aimed at boosting positive childhood experiences in conjunction with reducing adverse childhood experiences.

Researchers have long known that adverse childhood experiences, such as physical or emotional abuse or neglect, substance abuse and mental health problems in the household, exposure to violence, parental incarceration or divorce, can have lifelong negative effects on physical and mental health, explains study leader Christina Bethell, PhD, MPH, MBA, professor in the Bloomberg School’s Department of Population, Family and Reproductive Health and director of the Child and Adolescent Health Measurement Initiative.

The association between adverse childhood experiences and health effects is complex. Some individuals with multiple adverse childhood experiences thrive while others do not. And, many without adverse childhood experiences have health issues associated with adverse experiences, perhaps due to a lack of positive childhood experiences.

Positive childhood experiences are a key factor in influencing health and well-being, yet have not been sufficiently studied to date.

For their study, Bethell and her colleagues investigated the effects of positive childhood experiences analyzing data from the Wisconsin Behavioral Risk Factor Survey. In the 2015 Wisconsin survey, the state included seven extra questions related to positive childhood experiences. These included whether the respondents (1) were able to talk with their families about their feelings, (2) felt that their families stood by them during difficult times, (3) enjoyed participating in community traditions, (4) felt a sense of belonging in high school, (5) felt supported by friends, (6) had at least two non-parent adults who took genuine interest in them, and (7) felt safe and protected by an adult in their home.

The survey also scored respondents’ adverse childhood experiences and included questions about mental health, including diagnoses of depression and how many reported having poor mental health days in the past month. In addition, respondents were asked how often they got the social and emotional support they need (adult-reported social and emotional support). More than 6,000 adults ages 18 and older participated in the survey.

“This study offers the hopeful possibility that children and adults can thrive despite their accumulation of negative childhood experiences,” say Bethell. “People assume eliminating adversity automatically results in good health outcomes, but many people reporting lower adversity in childhood still had poorer mental and relational health outcomes if they did not also report having had positive childhood experiences.”

“Positive Childhood Experiences and Adult Mental and Relational Health in a Statewide Sample: Associations Across Adverse Childhood Experiences Levels” was written by Christina Bethell, PhD, MPH, MBA; Jennifer Jones, MSW; Narangerel Gombojav, MD, PhD; Jeff Linkenbach, ED; and Robert Sege, MD, PhD.

Excerpted from “For Better Adult Mental and Relational Health, Boost Positive Childhood Experiences” on the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health website. Read the full press release.

Source: Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health |  For Better Adult Mental and Relational Health, Boost Positive Childhood Experiences, https://www.jhsph.edu/news/news-releases/2019/for-better-adult-mental-and-relational-health-boost-positive-childhood-experiences.html | Reproduced with permission of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Baltimore, MD

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