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No single environmental factor is a necessary or sufficient cause of mental disorder; multifactorial and transdiagnostic approaches are needed to understand the impact of the environment on the development of mental disorders across the life course.
Using linked multi-agency administrative data for 71 932 children from the New South Wales Child Developmental Study, using logistic regression, we examined associations between 16 environmental risk factors in early life (prenatal period to <6 years of age) and later diagnoses of mental disorder recorded in health service data (from age 6 to 13 years), both individually and summed as an environmental risk score (ERS).
The ERS was associated with all types of mental disorder diagnoses in a dose–response fashion, such that 2.8% of children with no exposure to any of the environmental factors (ERS = 0), compared to 18.3% of children with an ERS of 8 or more indicating exposure to 8 or more environmental factors (ERS ⩾ 8), had been diagnosed with any type of mental disorder up to age 13–14 years. Thirteen of the 16 environmental factors measured (including prenatal factors, neighbourhood characteristics and more proximal experiences of trauma or neglect) were positively associated with at least one category of mental disorder.
Exposure to cumulative environmental risk factors in early life is associated with an increased likelihood of presenting to health services in childhood for any kind of mental disorder. In many instances, these factors are preventable or capable of mitigation by appropriate public policy settings.