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Childhood adversities and mental disorders in first-year college students: results from the World Mental Health International College Student Initiative

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  11 January 2022

Mathilde M. Husky
Laboratoire de Psychologie EA4139, Université de Bordeaux, Bordeaux, France
Ekaterina Sadikova
Department of Health Care Policy, Harvard Medical School, Boston, Massachusetts, USA Department of Epidemiology, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Boston, Massachusetts, USA
Sue Lee
Department of Health Care Policy, Harvard Medical School, Boston, Massachusetts, USA
Jordi Alonso
Health Services Research Unit, IMIM-Hospital del Mar Medical Research Institute; Pompeu Fabra University (UPF); and CIBER en Epidemiología y Salud Pública (CIBERESP), Barcelona, Spain
Randy P. Auerbach
Department of Psychiatry, Columbia University, New York, New York, USA
Jason Bantjes
Department of Global Health, Institute for Life Course Health Research, Stellenbosch University, South Africa
Ronny Bruffaerts
Universitair Psychiatrisch Centrum – Katholieke Universiteit Leuven (UPC-KUL), Campus Gasthuisberg, Leuven, Belgium
Pim Cuijpers
Department of Clinical, Neuro and Developmental Psychology, Amsterdam Public Health Research Institute, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, Amsterdam, The Netherlands
David D. Ebert
Department for Sport and Health Sciences, Chair for Psychology & Digital Mental Health Care, Technical University Munich, Munich, Germany
Raùl Gutiérrez Garcia
Department of Social Sciences and Humanities, De La Salle Bajio University, Salamanca, Guanajuato, Mexico
Penelope Hasking
School of Population Health, Curtin University, Perth, Western Australia, Australia
Arthur Mak
Department of Psychiatry, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong SAR
Margaret McLafferty
Psychology Research Institute, Ulster University, Coleraine, UK
Nancy A. Sampson
Department of Health Care Policy, Harvard Medical School, Boston, Massachusetts, USA
Dan J. Stein
Department of Psychiatry & Mental Health and South African Medical Council Research Unit on Risk and Resilience in Mental Disorders, University of Cape Town and Groote Schuur Hospital, Cape Town, Republic of South Africa
Ronald C. Kessler*
Department of Health Care Policy, Harvard Medical School, Boston, Massachusetts, USA
Author for correspondence: Ronald C. Kessler, E-mail:



This study investigates associations of several dimensions of childhood adversities (CAs) with lifetime mental disorders, 12-month disorder persistence, and impairment among incoming college students.


Data come from the World Mental Health International College Student Initiative (WMH-ICS). Web-based surveys conducted in nine countries (n = 20 427) assessed lifetime and 12-month mental disorders, 12-month role impairment, and seven types of CAs occurring before the age of 18: parental psychopathology, emotional, physical, and sexual abuse, neglect, bullying victimization, and dating violence. Poisson regressions estimated associations using three dimensions of CA exposure: type, number, and frequency.


Overall, 75.8% of students reported exposure to at least one CA. In multivariate regression models, lifetime onset and 12-month mood, anxiety, and substance use disorders were all associated with either the type, number, or frequency of CAs. In contrast, none of these associations was significant when predicting disorder persistence. Of the three CA dimensions examined, only frequency was associated with severe role impairment among students with 12-month disorders. Population-attributable risk simulations suggest that 18.7–57.5% of 12-month disorders and 16.3% of severe role impairment among those with disorders were associated with these CAs.


CAs are associated with an elevated risk of onset and impairment among 12-month cases of diverse mental disorders but are not involved in disorder persistence. Future research on the associations of CAs with psychopathology should include fine-grained assessments of CA exposure and attempt to trace out modifiable intervention targets linked to mechanisms of associations with lifetime psychopathology and burden of 12-month mental disorders.

Original Article
Copyright © The Author(s), 2022. Published by Cambridge University Press

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