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How do positive childhood experiences affect adult mental health?

Research looks at the relationship between childhood experiences and mental health later on in life.

Whether we realize it or not, the experiences that are encountered while growing up influence beliefs and behavior throughout life.  During childhood, the brain is developing, and this development can be influenced by external factors, such as family, friends, and events.  According to past surveys, 61.5 percent of adults and 48 percent of children have had adverse childhood experiences, with over 30 percent having multiple experiences.  This is problematic as this can be detrimental to adult mental health.

Recently, researchers have wondered if experiences that are positive can reduce the risk of poor adult mental health and depression, as this remains relatively unknown.  A United States study published in JAMA Pediatrics examined the relationship between positive childhood experiences and depression later on in life.

6,188 Wisconsin adults aged 18 and over participated in the study.  The participants had a wide variety of races, annual incomes, and ages.  All participants took part in a telephone survey that included questions regarding positive childhood experiences, adverse childhood experiences, depression, and poor mental health.

To determine positive childhood experiences, researchers asked participants how much they felt able to talk to their family, enjoyed participating in community traditions, felt supported by friends, felt welcome in their school, and felt safe in their homes.  To determine adverse childhood experiences, participants counted experiences of physical abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse, and dysfunctional households.  To determine depression and poor mental health in adulthood, participants were asked whether they were diagnosed with a depressive disorder and how many days out of the past 30 days their mental health was poor.

Over 52 percent of participants reported between six and seven positive childhood experiences, and 56.7 percent reported one or more adverse childhood experiences. The lowest depression and poor mental health prevalence were recorded for participants with six to seven positive childhood experiences and zero adverse childhood experiences.  Furthermore, the highest prevalence of poor mental health was recorded for participants with zero to two positive experiences and four to eight adverse experiences.

This study suggests that positive childhood experiences could potentially reduce the risk of developing depression in adults.  More research is needed to determine whether this is causal, and to include a more broad population.

Written by Avery Bisbee


Bethell, C., Jones, J., & Gombojav, N. (2019). Positive Childhood Experiences and Adult Mental and Relational Health in a Statewide Sample. JAMA Pediatrics. doi: 10.1001/jamapediatrics.2019.3007

EurekAlert. (2019, September 9). Association of positive childhood experiences and adult mental health, depression. Retrieved from



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