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BACKGROUND: Mental health concerns are common among university students and maybe elevated among those with specific risk exposures. The study examined the association between childhood adversities and mental health outcomes among undergraduate university students and assessed whether psychosocial and behavioral factors mediate those associations. METHODS: The Queen's University Student Well-Being and Academic Success Survey identified two large cohorts of first-year undergraduate students entering university in Fall 2018 and 2019 (n = 5,943). At baseline, students reported sociodemographic information, family-related mental health history, childhood physical abuse, sexual abuse, peer bullying, and parental separation or divorce. Baseline and follow-up surveys in Spring 2019, Fall 2019, and Spring 2020 included validated measures of anxiety (7-item Generalized Anxiety Disorder) and depressive symptoms (9-item Patient Health Questionnaire ), non-suicidal self-harm, and suicidality, along with psychological processes and lifestyle variables. Repeated measures logistic regression using Generalized Estimating Equations was used to characterize the associations between childhood adversities and mental health outcomes and examine potential mediation. RESULTS: Adjusting for age, gender, ethnicity, familial mental illness, and parental education, any childhood abuse (odds ratio: 2.89; 95% confidence interval, 2.58 to 3.23) and parental separation or divorce (odds ratio: 1.29; 95% confidence interval, 1.12 to 1.50) were significantly associated with a composite indicator of mental health outcomes (either 9-item Patient Health Questionnaire score ≥10 or 7-item Generalized Anxiety Disorderscore ≥10 or suicidality or self-harm). The association with childhood abuse weakened when adjusted for perceived stress, self-esteem, and insomnia (odds ratio: 2.05; 95% confidence interval, 1.80 to 2.34), and that with parental divorce weakened when adjusted for self-esteem (odds ratio: 1.17; 95% confidence interval, 1.00 to 1.36). CONCLUSION: Childhood abuse and parental separation or divorce were associated with mental health concerns among university students. Childhood adversities may impact later mental health through an association with stress sensitivity, self-esteem, and sleep problems. The findings suggest that prevention and early intervention focusing on improving sleep, self-esteem, and coping with stress while considering the individual risk profile of help-seeking students may help support student mental health.

Original publication




Journal article


Can J Psychiatry

Publication Date



childhood abuse, childhood adversity, parental separation or divorce, prevention and early intervention, student mental health