The impact of childhood adversities on mental health and suicidal behaviour in Northern Ireland

Word cloud relating to trauma and mental illness

Research by the Ulster University has found that childhood adversities in Northern Ireland can have a damaging and long-term impact on mental health and wellbeing.  There has been little research on the trans-generational impact of the Troubles in Northern Ireland to date but this new research, which was launched in conjunction with the NSPCC, focuses on the links between adversities, the Troubles, trauma and mental illness in students and in the general population.

The key findings of the study include:

  • Overall 32% of the population in Northern Ireland reported adverse childhood experiences, with childhood economic adversity high in comparison with other countries.
  • Individuals who experienced conflict and adverse childhood experiences and who also had psychological problems were 15 times more likely to engage in suicidal behaviour than those who experienced low levels of trauma.
  • Students who experienced elevated levels of childhood adversities were approximately eight times more likely to engage in suicidal behaviour and five and a half times more likely to engage in self-harm.
  • Those who experienced conflict were more likely to have Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and the risk was higher for those who also had experienced maltreatment.
  • Social networks can be protective, reducing the negative impact of adverse childhood experiences on mental health.  Family harmony was particularly protective.  However those who experienced childhood adversities were less likely to have these protective social networks.

Professor Siobhan O’Neill, Professor of Mental Health Sciences at Ulster University said: “exposure to high levels of adversity in childhood can lead to mental illness, and increases the likelihood of a person developing PTSD after a traumatic event. This effects not only of the person who experienced the adversities and trauma, but also on their offspring, and may affect subsequent generations.”

The research produced as a Policy and Practice Briefing by the Ulster University made a number of recommendations including:

  • The need to promote resilience building early in life.
  • The need for early identification of childhood adversities to minimise the detrimental impact of such experiences.
  • When patients present with psychological problems practitioners should enquire about a range of adverse childhood experiences, with particular attention given to the impact of parental mental illness.

You can read the Policy and Practice Briefing here: