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

WHO WMH-ICS Collaborators

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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 languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-11
Number of pages11
JournalPsychological Medicine
Early online date11 Jan 2022
Publication statusPublished online - 11 Jan 2022

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
The World Mental Health International College Student (WMH-ICS) initiative is carried out as part of the WHO World Mental Health (WMH) Survey Initiative. WMH-ICS is funded, in part, by the US National Institute of Mental Health (R56MH109566); the Belgian Fund for Scientific Research (11N0514N/11N0516N/ 1114717N), the King Baudouin Foundation (2014-J2140150-102905), and Eli Lilly (IIT-H6U-BX-I002); BARMER, a health care insurance company, for project StudiCare; Consejo Nacional de Ciencia y Tecnología (CONACyT) grant CB-2016-01-28554; ZonMw (Netherlands Organisation for Health Research and Development; grant number 636110005) and the PFGV (PFGV; Protestants Fonds voor de Geestelijke Volksgezondheid) in support of the student survey project; South African Medical Research Council through its Division of Research Capacity Development under the Mid-Career Scientist Program (MCSP) (awarded to JB), and the Ithemba Foundation; Fondo de Investigación Sanitaria, Instituto de Salud Carlos III – FEDER (PI13/00343), ISCIII (Río Hortega, CM14/00125), ISCIII (Sara Borrell, CD12/00440), Ministerio de Sanidad, Servicios Sociales e Igualdad, PNSD (Exp. 2015I015); DIUE Generalitat de Catalunya (2017 SGR 452), FPU (FPU15/05728) (JA); Fondo de Investigación Sanitaria, Instituto de Salud Carlos III- FEDER (PI13/00506); European Union Regional Development Fund (ERDF) EU Sustainable Competitiveness Programme for Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland Public Health Agency (HSC R&D), and Ulster University; Suicide Prevention Australia (awarded to PH); and the National Research Service Award T32 MH 017119 (ES).

Publisher Copyright:
© The Author(s), 2022. Published by Cambridge University Press.


  • Childhood adversities
  • College students
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Substance use disorders
  • impairment


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