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Abuse, neglect and neurodevelopment across the life course: what can paediatricians and child psychiatrists do about this together? The Illingworth-Rees keynote lecture 2023


Paediatricians and child psychiatrists share complex cases, often associated with abuse, neglect and other ‘Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs)’. ACEs are associated in a dose-response relationship with both mental and physical health problems across the life span. We found that 9-year-old children who had been abused and neglected were much more likely to also have symptoms of heritable neurodevelopmental conditions (NDCs) such as ADHD, autism and intellectual disabilities. To our surprise, these were not caused by the abuse and neglect. Instead, both the NDCs and the abuse and neglect were being caused by additional genetic factors. We also found that children who have experienced abuse and neglect, and who also have NDCs, are at twice the risk of developing symptoms of severe mental illness in adolescence. This has caused us to develop our ‘Double Jeopardy’ hypothesis—that experiencing both abuse and neglect and NDCs in childhood might double the risk of a range of physical and mental health problems across the life span.

Both paediatricians and child psychiatrists will be faced with children who have complex problems, and they will sometimes need to work together to solve these—whether or not abuse or neglect is in the mix.

Dr Corinne Rees’s words were prescient: ‘The truth that psychological issues and behaviour are integral to all illness indicates the necessity for every doctor to feel competent in considering their relevance’. As paediatricians and child psychiatrists, let’s move forward together to overcome the mind-body dichotomy for the benefit of our patients.

  • child health services
  • child psychiatry
  • child welfare
  • mental health

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