What predicts mental health?

What predicts mental health? Mental health and wellbeing certainly involve multiple contributing factors that likely are unique for every individual. However, certain factors seem to creep up consistenly in the research literature as being influential.

One of those factors frequently associated with mental health is the experience of adversities in one's family as a child. In the World Health Organization's (WHO) World Mental Health Survey, which involved data from 51,945 adults across 21 countries, researchers found that the experience of childhood adversities shared nearly a 30% relationship with adult mental health disorders (Kessler et al., 2010). 

 Here is the list of the childhood adversities examined in the study: 

  • Experiencing interpersonal loss with one or more parents, such as parental death, parental divorce, or separation from parent
  • Experiencing parental maladjustment, such as having a parent who had a mental illness, misused substances, engaged in criminal behavior, or was violent
  • Experiencing maltreatment, such as physical abuse, sexual abuse, or neglect
  • Experiencing a life-threatening physical illness as a child
  • Experiencing economic adversity

Nearly 40% of respondents experienced at least one of these childhood adversities, and a majority of those who experienced at least one of these childhood adversities indicated experiencing more than one. The proportion of respondents who experienced childhood adversities also did not vary significantly based on economic status (the figure was roughly the same among low-, middle-, and high-income countries), which serves as a helpful reminder that these kinds of issues do not seem to be restricted to any one particular demographic.

A similar study, known as the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) Study, surveyed over 17,000 middle-class adults in the United States. The childhood experiences examined in their study were somewhat different from those examined in World Mental Health Survey: Most notably, emotional abuse and emotional neglect were added. Nearly two-thirds of respondents reported experiencing at least one adverse childhood experience. As was true in the World Mental Health Survey, among those who reported experiencing adverse experiences, a majority experienced more than one. Researchers also found eye-catching relationships between these adverse childhood experiences and a variety of indicators of health and wellbeing as adults (see infographics based on the results of the ACEs study here). 

The results of these studies provide a sobering reminder of the adversities that many encounter in their families as children and the impact that those experiences can have even into adulthood. In fact, given the numbers, it is safer to assume that many of the people with whom we interact likely have experienced one or more of these adverse experiences. Let that increase our sensitivity, awareness, and empathy. Let it also increase our prevention and early intervention efforts, so that we can promote the health of our families, communities, and our children who depend on them and carry those experiences with them into adulthood. 

Nick Cornett, PhD, LMFT, LPC, Registered Play Therapist is an Assistant Professor of Counseling at John Brown University. His specialty areas include play therapy and marriage and family therapy.