U of M study discovers link between spanking and mental illness

The University of Manitoba has made international headlines due to a recent study undertaken by U of M professors, which argues that physical punishment in child rearing may lead to mental illness in adulthood.

On July 2, Pediatrics magazine published the study, which presents a relationship between physical discipline and several mental illnesses. These illnesses include mood disorders, anxiety disorders, substance abuse and dependence, and personality disorders. The study states that this relationship exists, even in situations independent of physical maltreatment.

The study team was lead by Tracie Afifi, an assistant professor in the U of M departments of Community Health Sciences, Psychiatry and Family Social Sciences. Additional U of M researchers involved in the study included Natalie Mota, Patricia Dasiewicz and Hitender Sareen. They also partnered with Harriet MacMillan of McMaster University.

The study defined physical discipline as pushing, grabbing, shoving, slapping, and hitting, and studied the effect it has on Axis I and II mental disorders in adulthood. Axis I disorders include major depression, dysthymia, mania, mood disorders, anxiety disorders, substance abuse and specific phobia. Axis II disorders include several personality disorders.

According to the research team, there have been past studies investigating the relationship between childhood physical punishment and mental illness; however, this particular study expands the scope of Axis I and II disorders and is nationally representative.

The researchers collected data on physical punishment from The National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions (NESARC). NESARC contains interview data of a representative sample of American adults, aged 20 and older, who are not institutionalized.

The results were adjusted for gender, race, marital status, education, family dysfunction, parental drug problems or parental hospitalization for mental illness. These factors were controlled in order to ensure that extreme cases or issues that may have affected the parental use of physical discipline did not affect the results.

According to the study, female adults were less likely than males to have experienced physical punishment in childhood. Additionally, black individuals were more likely to experience this treatment than white individuals. Physical punishment appeared more often in childhood as education and income increased.

Overall, the results identified a relationship between physical punishment and mental illness. The presence of depression and anxiety was 1.4 times greater for adults who had experienced physical punishment in childhood. Alcohol abuse was 1.6 times more likely to appear and drug abuse was 1.5 times greater in adulthood after being exposed to physical discipline.

Two to five per cent of Axis I disorders and four to seven per cent of Axis II disorders were linked to physical punishment in childhood. Moreover, Axis I disorders were found to decrease by two to five per cent in the absence of physical punishment. Axis II decreased by four to seven per cent in this absence.

Canada and the United States are both among nations that have not outlawed corporal punishment for children. The Criminal Code of Canada permits parents to discipline their children using a reasonable amount of physical force when the child is between 2 ¬¬– 12 years of age. Under this law, no instrument may be used, and if the head is hit or if a mark is produced on the child, the physical punishment enters the realm of abuse. This form of discipline is discouraged by the American Academy of Pediatrics, yet, 80 per cent of parents are reported as hitting their children as punishment.

The study has created controversy among many individuals in Canada. Commentators on the CBC website debated the issue after the article was released. One short comment alone, “there’s a difference between abused and discipline,” produced 16 responses. The comments were extreme on both sides of the argument. One commentator argued that “kids today lack discipline period. They are absolute little monsters!” Another claimed, “People in support of corporal punishment are just latent sadists who want to act out their sick urges on their kids.”

According to the authors, the study has several implications. They hope that healthcare providers for children will be conscious of this study and remember the link between physical punishment and mental illness. They recommend that any sort of physical punishment should be eradicated from parenting. By doing so, the authors suggest that the pervasiveness of mental illness in modern society may decrease. They advocate for the use of positive parenting techniques in replacement of physical discipline.

Afifi argues, “Policies need to be focused on strategies to reduce physical punishment, which points to the importance of positive parenting approaches. These findings are important in considering policy and programmatic approaches to protect children from inappropriate and potentially harmful discipline.”