Adverse Childhood Experiences and Mental Health in Young Adults: A Longitudinal Survey


Schilling, Elizabeth A., Robert H. Aseltine, Jr., and Susan Gore. “Adverse Childhood Experiences and Mental Health in Young Adults: A Longitudinal Survey.” BMC Public Health 7 (March 7, 2007). 


From the Abstract:
"Where racial/ethnic differences existed, the adverse mental health impact of ACEs on Whites was consistently greater than on Blacks and Hispanics." (1)

Study Design:
The current study investigates the prevalence of a variety of lifetime ACEs reported by a sample of racially and economically diverse high school seniors, and estimates the impact of these experiences on three mental health outcomes–depression, drug use, and antisocial behavior–assessed two years later. In addition, this study investigates under-explored gender and racial/ethnic differences in these associations. (2)

Significant racial/ethnic differences are also evident in the prevalence data in Table 2. Approximately 1 in 6 White respondents reported that one of their parents had a drinking or drug problem, a rate approximately 50% higher than the rate reported by Blacks, and 30% higher than the rate reported by Hispanics. 1 in 4 Black and Hispanic respondents reported witnessing a serious injury or murder, a rate twice as high as that reported by Whites. Finally, about 1 in 6 Hispanics reported being threatened with a weapon, held captive, or kidnapped. This rate was 43% higher than the rate reported by Whites and almost two times higher than the rate reported by Blacks.

Hispanics reported the highest depressive symptoms (M =1.88, SD = .55) followed by Blacks (M = 1.80, SD = .52) and Whites (M = 1.65, SD = .49). Whites reported the highest levels of drug use (M = 1.34, SD = .57) followed by Hispanics (M = 1.13, SD = .31) and Blacks (M = 1.08, SD = .15). The frequency of antisocial behaviors did not differ between these three groups: Whites (M = .14, SD =.53), Blacks (M = .14, SD = .52), Hispanics (M = .12, SD =.31). Table 5 presents racial/ethnic differences in the effects of ACEs among Whites, Blacks, and Hispanics. These data indicate that the mental health effects of a number of ACEs are consistently stronger among Whites than among Blacks or Hispanics. In fact, the cumulative effect of adversity as well as three individual ACEs–(a) sent away from home, (b) parent with drinking/drug problem and, (c) being threatened with a weapon or held captive–are significantly associated with drug use among Whites only.

Because of the fluidity and malleability of roles during this period (see [40]), the transition to adulthood offers a potential "turning point" in the lives of disadvantaged youth. For example, previous research has shown that both post-secondary education and supportive romantic relationships positively influence the lifecourse trajectories of at-risk young adults [41-45]. Moreover, these roles are likely synergistic in their influence: One of the benefits of higher education in women is that it delays establishment of committed romantic relationships, resulting in higher quality marriages [43,44] which promote better mental health [46]. Clearly, strategies for preventing serious childhood adversity would be most beneficial: however, the malleability of young adulthood may provide additional opportunities to re-direct lifecourse trajectories in a positive direction and to prevent the adult mental health consequences of ACEs. (8)

Our results indicate that when racial/ethnic differences exist, young Whites consistently
exhibit greater vulnerability to ACEs, particularly for externalizing behaviors. One explanation is that these results may illustrate a "steeling effect" [48] in which youths in some ethnic groups are better able to successfully cope with stress and adversity and are consequently less prone to mental health difficulties. Research on coping processes may provide support for this explanation, as there is evidence that cognitive coping styles more typical among ethnic subcultures may explain differential racial/ethnic vulnerability to stress [26]. For example, differences in coping styles partially explain greater vulnerability to PTSD among Hispanic compared to Black and White police officers (see [27]), and greater religiosity, found among Blacks compared to Whites, has been found to be protective [49]. (8)