Major study to explore whether child abuse triggers psychopathy

By Neil Puffett

| 31 May 2018

Around 10,000 children and young people across the UK will take part in a major study to investigate whether being a victim of child abuse can lead to mental health problems, such as psychopathic traits.

Young people in contact with the public law system are three times more likely to have offended than the general population.

A team from the University of Huddersfield will survey the group of children, which will include a number of young offenders, in a bid to shed light on the issue.

It said previous research among serious offenders and children has shown a link between abuse and offending exists, and wants to explore further and identify potential ways of preventing it.

The UK survey is one of five taking place across the world, with the research team carrying out similar-scale exercises in China, Uganda, Jamaica and India.

The project team, co-directed by professor Adele Jones and professor Daniel Boduszek, from the University of Huddersfield and supported by research fellow Dr Dominic Willmott, hope to finish analysing the 50,000 responses by early 2019.

Professor Matt DeLisi, of Iowa State University, whose areas of expertise include the impact of adverse childhood experience on the development of criminality, will also be involved with the project.

"We strongly believe that [child abuse and neglect experiences] can link not only to anxiety, depression and self-harm, but also to development of psychopathic traits," said professor Boduszek.

"We will use self-report questionnaires rather than face-to-face interviews because children, particularly boys, do not feel comfortable openly disclosing sexual abuse. The exercise has to be anonymous and participants have to be sure that no-one will track their experiences back to them if we want to get honest responses."

Research published last year by the Ministry of Justice found that young people between the ages of 10 and 17 in contact with the public law system were 2.9 times more likely to have offended than the general population.

The researchers said the link may be explained to a large extent by "shared risk factors", as a result of young people going through public law cases being more likely to come from high-risk family backgrounds affected by poverty, abuse and deprivation.

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