Do High-threat Life Events Really Provoke the Onset of Psychiatric Disorder in Children?

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Abstract

Studies on adults have suggested important effects of stressful life events in provoking onset of psychiatric disorder. Only a few comparable studies on children exist, and their results are inconsistent in relation to definite timing effects. Meeting some important methodological challenges overlooked in the past research, this study set out to examine whether the onset of psychiatric disorder in children was more likely to occur shortly after a severe event, as compared with other times. The sample consisted of 99 consecutive, newly referred patients, aged 8–16 years, from a child psychiatry service in London. PACE (Psychosocial Assessment of Childhood Experiences), an investigator-based, standardized interview was used to assess the timing and impact of life events over the preceding 18 months. CAPA (Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Assessment), a standardized diagnostic assessment, was used to establish the presence, timing, and consequential impairment of child and adolescent psychiatric symptoms. In a within-subject, over-time design, conditional logistic regression techniques were employed to examine whether risk of onset was greater in the 9 weeks following a high-threat life event than at other times. There was a small but statistically significant association between child-reported events and child-reported onset; the associations with parent-reported onset were inconsistent. Parent-reported events failed to relate to onset by either source. The study offers only quite limited support to the notion of negative life events provoking onset of psychiatric disorder in children and young people. The possible reasons for this are discussed, together with important conceptual and methodological issues to problems of defining onset, and the choice of appropriate designs for data analysis.

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