A happy childhood is no guarantee that a child will not develop a mental illness later in life, new research from the University of South Australia has revealed.
Conducted in partnership with the University of Canberra, the findings emerged from a study, published in Current Psychology, which examined how early childhood experiences relate to differential pathways, and how these might relate to poor mental health.
Given that both positive and negative childhood experiences were found to manifest as anxiety or other mental health disorders into adulthood, researchers believe the ability to adapt, or more importantly not adapt, to unexpected scenarios, may be influencing mental health.
In Australia, almost 50% of the population will experience mental illness at some stage in their lives, with an estimated 314,000 children aged 4-11 (about 14%) experiencing a mental disorder.
While the study confirmed that people who faced adverse and unpredictable early life experiences had more symptoms of poor mental health, such as depression and paranoia, it also found that children who grew up in stable and supportive environments were also at risk of experiencing symptoms of anxiety as adults.
Lead researcher, and PhD candidate, UniSA’s Bianca Kahl, said the study highlights the indiscriminate nature of mental illness and reveals key insights about potential risk factors for all children.
“As the prevalence of mental health conditions expands, it’s imperative that we also extend our knowledge of this very complex and varied condition,” she said.
“This research shows that mental health conditions are not solely determined by early life events, and that a child who is raised in a happy home, could still grow up to have a mental health disorder.”
Ms Kahl acknowledged missing pieces to the puzzle remain in understanding how childhood environment and early life experiences might manifest into mental health conditions in adulthood.
“We suspect that it’s our expectations about our environments and our ability to adapt to scenarios when our expectations are not being met, that may be influencing our experiences of distress.
“If, as children, we learn to adapt to change, and we learn how to cope when things do not go our way, we may be in a better position to respond to stress and other risk factors for poor mental health.”
Testing the theory will be the focus of the next research study.