Almost one-third of adult Canadians were abused as a child and many of them struggle with mental-health issues, according to a study led by a University of Manitoba professor.
Study lead and U of M professor Tracie Afifi said her findings that 32 per cent of adult Canadians have experienced child abuse is consistent with the rate of child abuse in other countries.
"I think people often don't realize how prevalent child abuse is in Canada and that we really need to be investing in preventing child abuse from occurring," said Afifi, an associate professor in the departments of community health sciences and psychiatry.
Afifi's team of researchers from the University of Manitoba took data from more than 23,000 adults 18 and older from across Canada who participated in the 2012 Canadian Community Health Survey: Mental Health.
Details of the study were released Tuesday in the Canadian Medical Association Journal.
Their research indicates sexual abuse, physical abuse and exposure to intimate-partner violence is associated with mental-health issues including depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety disorder, alcohol abuse/dependence and drug abuse/dependence.
Afifi said the study didn't ask "Were you abused?" because studies have shown some people who have been abused don't characterize their experiences as such.
Instead, the questions asked whether respondents were slapped on the face or head, spanked with a hard object, pushed, grabbed, shoved or had something thrown at them to hurt them. For both those questions, respondents were asked to say yes only if the behaviour had happened a minimum of three times.
Another question asked whether respondents were kicked, bit, punched, choked, burned or physically attacked at least once.
Sexual-abuse questions were designed to determine whether respondents were forced into unwanted sexual activity. The questions asked people whether as children they had seen their parents, step-parents or guardians hit each other or other adults in the home three or more times.
Overall, physical abuse was the most common; 26 per cent of respondents said they had experienced physical abuse. Ten per cent of respondents said they had experienced sexual abuse and nearly eight per cent witnessed intimate-partner violence.
Men were more likely than women to have experienced physical abuse, 31 per cent versus 21 per cent. But women were more likely to have experienced sexual abuse, 14 per cent versus nearly six per cent.
But no matter the type of abuse, Afifi said it was linked to mental-health issues.
"Even the least severe act of physical abuse that we examined was still across the board, associated with our 14 different disorders," Afifi said.
The report shows that Canada's western provinces had the highest rates of child abuse with Alberta and British Columbia at 36 per cent and Manitoba at 40 per cent. Newfoundland and Labrador had the lowest rates of abuse at 21 per cent.
Afifi said her study didn't look at why the western provinces have higher rates but said it likely has to do with socio-demographic factors.
Ron Kane, director of clinical services at Macdonald Youth Services, said many factors play into child abuse and it would be hard to say why Manitoba has such a high rate.
"You can point to poverty, you can point to violence in communities, unemployment, inadequate housing, poor coping skills -- a whole array of potential factors, but it's difficult to say that there's more of that goes on in Manitoba than anywhere else."
No matter what the cause, Afifi hopes the study will help make health professionals aware of the relationship between child abuse and mental-health issues.
"If a child has experienced abuse, it's really important to pay attention to their mental health so that you can intervene to try to prevent those mental disorders from occurring."
This type of study cannot prove cause and effect, it can only point to possible links.
The Canadian Community Health Survey excluded native communities, people living in the three territories, full-time members of the Canadian Forces and people living in institutions.
-- with files from The Canadian Press