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Modeling Life Course Pathways from Adverse Childhood Experiences to Adult Mental Health


Although the association between adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and adult mental health is becoming well established, less is known about the complex and multiple pathways through which ACEs exert their influence. Growing evidence suggests that adversity early in life conveys not only early impacts, but also augments risk of stress-related life course cascades that continue to undermine health. The present study aims to test pathways of stress proliferation and stress embodiment processes linking ACEs to mental health impairment in adulthood. Data are from the 2011 Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance Survey, a representative sample of Washington State adults ages 18 and over (N=14,001). Structural equation modeling allowed for testing of direct and indirect effects from ACEs though low income status, experiences of adversity in adulthood, and social support. The model demonstrated that adult low income, social support and adult adversity are in fact conduits through which ACEs exert their influence on mental health impairment in adulthood. Significant indirect pathways through these variables supported hypotheses that the effect of ACEs is carried through these variables. This is among the first models that demonstrates multiple stress-related life course pathways through which early life adversity compromises adult mental health. Discussion elaborates multiple service system opportunities for intervention in early and later life to interrupt direct and indirect pathways of ACE effects.