Prevalence of adverse childhood experiences in an undergraduate student population : associations with health, education and social services

  • Lian McGavock

    Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


    The likelihood of diminished health, social and economic outcomes in adulthood is significantly related to adverse life experiences in childhood. The current research conducted an online survey to glean the self-reported experiences of childhood adversity in a university student population. The survey, known as The Big Ask, included: the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) 10-item questionnaire - a retrospective measure of neglect, abuse and household dysfunction; subjective measures of conflict-related experiences and inter-/intra- community violence, and self-rated measures of health status and life satisfaction. These variables were examined for association with Academic Resilience and levels of social service contact. All full-time, first year undergraduates registered at Queen’s University, Belfast during 2010/2011 (N = 4114) received an email directing them to the study website. The study response rate was 18.6% (n = 765) and results for this student population were found to be comparable with those across whole population studies in the United States.
    Some 56% (n = 429) of respondents reported at least one adversity. Over 12% (n = 95) reported an ‘at risk’ ACE score of 4+. Logistic regression showed gender and school-type to be non-significant with regard to ACE score, nor was there significant effect of religious affiliation on ACE. Entitlement to Free School Meals, witnessing community violence sometimes or often, being personally affected by the ‘Troubles’ quite a bit or an extreme amount and having an Access qualification were all significant predictors of an ACE score of 4+ (p < 0.001). Respondents exposed to Household Mental Illness (over one-third of sample) were most likely to have experienced no further adversities. Eighty-six per cent of those who witnessed domestic violence, however, had experienced at least three additional adversities. Those in the 4+ACE group were 23 times more likely to have been in contact with social services than those who reported no childhood adversities. Surprisingly, life satisfaction was shown to mitigate the effects of Adverse Childhood Experiences within the sample. Those with high levels of life satisfaction were found to have better health and education outcomes - regardless of number of Adverse Childhood Experiences reported - than those with low life satisfaction yet who had no reported experiences of childhood adversity.
    Date of AwardSept 2012
    Original languageEnglish
    Awarding Institution
    • Queen's University Belfast
    SupervisorTrevor Spratt (Supervisor), Emma Larkin (Supervisor) & Liam O'Hare (Supervisor)

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