Around 62 per cent of Australians report being abused and neglected in childhood, major study finds – ABC News

Around 62 per cent of Australians report being abused and neglected in childhood, major study finds - ABC News

Warning: This story contains references to child abuse and self-harm.

Almost two-thirds of Australians have been abused, neglected, or exposed to domestic violence as children, according to self-reports provided to a major new study.

The five-year study, conducted by a team of researchers and headed up by Professor Ben Mathews of the Queensland University of Technology, found people who reported experiencing child maltreatment were far more likely to have poorer lifelong health outcomes than those who had not. 

Of the 8,503 respondents aged 16 or older, 62 per cent indicated experiences of maltreatment in childhood.

“When we saw [that] …  the air went out of the room,” said Holly Erskine, a senior researcher at the Queensland Centre for Mental Health Research.

The study, commissioned by the National Health and Medical Research Council and the federal government, is considered a world-first due to its depth and scope. 

Participants were randomly selected using computer-generated mobile phone numbers, and the survey was completed using computer-assisted phone interviewing. 

The findings have now been published in a special edition of the Medical Journal of Australia.

They paint a disturbing picture of the extent of childhood maltreatment — that is, sexual abuse, physical abuse, emotional abuse, neglect, and exposure to domestic violence — and show just how common it is today. 

“It really started to tell a story about the health of the Australian population, but also showed us a way that we could potentially improve it,” Dr Erskine said.

Those solutions, according to researchers, need to focus on preventing child harm and include overhauling social and health policies, especially those affecting children. 

If interrogated properly, they believe this data could be the catalyst for a major policy shift that could result in improved health, gender equality and social justice outcomes for all Australians.

Most of those who reported experiencing maltreatment experienced multiple types, and witnessing domestic violence was the most common.

Girls were also far more likely than boys to experience maltreatment, especially sexual abuse and neglect.

A young white woman with blonde hair and glasses
Dr Erskine says the results are startling but also provide a platform for change.(Michael Lloyd/ABC News)

National Children’s Commissioner Anne Hollonds said the results were a “wake-up call”.

“If this doesn’t trigger urgent action by government to make child wellbeing a national policy priority, then what will?” she asked. 

“We are failing children in this country because we’re not making the issues that are important for child wellbeing our national priority.”

Lifelong trauma

The long-term impacts of child maltreatment were of particular interest to researchers.

Those reporting maltreatment were far more likely to have poorer lifelong health outcomes, including being nearly five times more likely to have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), almost three times as likely to have generalised anxiety disorder and severe alcohol use disorder.

They were also more likely to have obesity or smoke and were six times more likely to be dependent on cannabis.

“That really is a national crisis that we need to do something about,” Dr Erskine said.

The findings ring true for Brisbane man Craig, who wells up when he thinks of how much he has achieved in recent years. 

Now in his 50s, he said he experienced sexual and emotional abuse as a child.

It left him with PTSD, making it difficult to forge or sustain friendships and ongoing employment.

During his low points, Craig was homeless, sometimes dabbled in illicit substances, and often drank heavily.

“You were hoping that if you did it long enough and hard enough, the pain would leave you permanently by, unfortunately, dying,” he said.

A middle-aged white man with short hair, a white shirt and glasses working on an art installation
Craig explores his PTSD through art.(ABC News: Michael Lloyd)

After hitting rock bottom a few years ago, he decided to dedicate his life to studying PTSD and its impact, both through academia and art.

Craig is preparing to graduate from university this year and wants to study for his PHD.

It was through his studies he discovered the role service animals could play in a person’s recovery.

He adopted and trained a border collie named Ruby, who could smell his distress and nudge him with her nose before he was even feeling it.

“That has had a massive effect on centring me and allowing me to be calm and centred throughout the day.”

Since getting Ruby, Craig said he had been able to refocus his life. 

No longer is he having aggressive outbursts in public, nor does he misuse substances. 

“I get the same social benefits [from Ruby] as I do in human friendships, but I get less stress.”

A middle-aged white man with short hair, a white shirt and glasses standing in a park with a border collie
Ruby the border collie has had an enormous impact on Craig’s life.(ABC News: Michael Lloyd)

What now?

Craig hopes the report’s findings will be used to develop new public policies. 

Dr Erskine shared the same feeling and said child maltreatment should not be a rite of passage young Australians have to endure.

“It’s not a generational problem. This is a problem that we need to address now,” she said.

Encouragingly, there have been some declines in physical and sexual abuse. Researchers think that could indicate that targeted policies and improved education to address those issues have started to work.

A middle-aged white woman with a black blazer and glasses sitting in a courtyard
Ms Hollonds says the findings represent a “wake-up call”.(ABC News: Billy Cooper)

Ms Hollonds said if there was to be real progress reducing child harm, there needed to be national leadership on issues relating to young people.

She said there needed to be a minister for children, national strategy or national task force to have an overarching focus on child wellbeing.

“We need some accountability,” she said.

Professor Mathews, the lead researcher on the study, was a professorial fellow to the Royal Commission Into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

“Child maltreatment in Australia is widespread, it’s harmful, and it really needs a nationally coordinated, sustained response,” he said.

A young, balding white man with a black blazer
Professor Mathews wants to see greater coordination.(ABC News: Michael Lloyd)

Professor Mathews also wanted more support for parents, including an increase in pre and post-natal health, housing support, access to childcare, and income support. He would also like a targeted education campaign.

“It really points to the need for an emotional revolution in how we support parents in dealing with their kids.”

Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus described the study’s findings as “shocking” and said all levels of government and the community must do better.

“These aren’t just statistics. These are children,” he said in a statement.

“The government will be looking carefully at this landmark report and we will use this data to inform better, more targeted policies.”

For Professor Mathews and Craig, a focus on prevention will be key.

“We need to look at how we can get to that before [long-term effects] start affecting people the way it affected me,” Craig said.


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