A groundbreaking new Canadian study found one-third of the population has suffered some form of "child abuse," prompting a call for nationwide prevention measures and sparking a debate about what constitutes physical abuse.
The report, published Tuesday in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, establishes mental-health links with both less serious forms of physical punishment – being spanked – and far more serious abuse, including severe beatings and burning. Both extremes contributed to mental-health problems, ranging from anxiety and depression to suicidal thoughts and attempts. Exposure to more than one type of abuse increased the likelihood of suffering from a mental condition.
After analyzing data from more than 23,000 people across the country, Tracie Afifi, a professor in community health sciences and psychiatry at the University of Manitoba, and her co-authors found 32 per cent of adult Canadians had experienced some degree of child abuse, with physical abuse the most common at 26 per cent, followed by sexual abuse at 10 per cent, and exposure to partner/guardian/parent violence at 8 per cent. It also found men were more likely to have been physically abused – 31 per cent compared with 21 per cent for women – while sexual abuse was more common against women, 14 per cent compared with 6 per cent in men.
The researchers divided physical abuse into three categories: being slapped on the face, head or ears as well as being hit or spanked with something hard (a minimum of three times); being pushed, grabbed or shoved, or having something thrown at them (again, three times); and being kicked, bit, punched, burned or physically attacked (at least once).
Psychiatrist Roger McIntyre, head of the Mood Disorders Psychopharmacology Unit at Toronto's University Health Network, said the one-third statistic isn't surprising. But, he noted the key issue is the definition of what constitutes abuse and neglect.
"We all agree on the extremes, however, the grey zone is very subjective with people, hence the variable results," Dr. McIntyre said.
Dr. Afifi acknowledged the definitions of abuse used in the report are wide.
"In terms of the more severe acts of violence, most people can agree on physical abuse," she said. "[But] if I asked you if spanking is considered child abuse, you might say yes or no. It's a personal point of view."
After analyzing the data, taken from the 2012 Canadian Community Health Survey, Dr. Afifi and her research team also pinpointed the odds of people experiencing mental-health problems depending on the abuse they suffered. For instance, they found those who were slapped on the face, head or ears, hit or spanked were 2.3 times more likely to develop depression than those who were not hit. The odds increased to 2.8 times more likely if the person was kicked, bit, punched, choked, burned or attacked. Victims of sexual abuse were almost eight times more likely to attempt suicide than those who were not abused.
Elisa Romano, associate professor in the school of psychology at the University of Ottawa, says she suspects the child-abuse numbers are actually higher because the research did not factor in neglect or psychological maltreatment.
"All the research is unequivocal in showing any degree of violence has no benefit to a child."