About half of Canada's soldiers have a history of child abuse and/or exposure to it, which is significantly higher than for the general population, indicates a new study led by a Manitoba researcher.

"We thought it was really an important finding," says Tracie Afifi, associate professor in the department of psychiatry at the University of Manitoba and lead author of the research released Wednesday by the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) Psychiatry.

Any child abuse exposure was higher with members of the regular forces (47.7 per cent) and even higher among reservists (49.4 per cent).

Adults who were abused as children make up 33.1 per cent in the general population, according to the study, which also involved the Canadian Forces Health Services Group Headquarters in Ottawa and the University of Ottawa.

The researchers note that child abuse exposure can take many forms, including physical abuse, sexual abuse "and exposure to intimate partner violence, and deployment-related trauma."

The study examined data from two Canadian surveys:

  • The 2013 Canadian Forces Mental Health Survey, to which more than 8,000 military members responded.
  • The 2012 Canadian Community Health Survey, which questioned about 25,000 people.

The research backs up similar findings in the U.S. that showed a higher prevalence of childhood abuse (of various forms) among military personnel compared with civilians.

Military Depression Abuse 20160127

Canadian soldiers patrol southwest of Kandahar, Afghanistan, in 2010. A new study says about half of military personnel in Canada faced abuse in their childhood, such as corporal punishment or exposure to domestic violence. (Anja Niedringhaus/Canadian Press)

"What we know about people coming out of dysfunctional families is they often gravitate towards environments where there is structure and safety," says Dr. Greg Passey, a Vancouver psychiatrist who served 22 years in the Canadian military. He was not involved in the study.  

Part of his deployment was in Rwanda in 1994, where he was part of a mental health team assessing stress in Canadian troops.

"What we know about the Canadian military environment, it is like a very large family. There's very clear boundaries and rules," says Passey. "Overall it makes sense that individuals with childhood sexual abuse or just abuse in general would gravitate towards the military."

'The military may be selecting more resilient individuals.' – Tracie Afifi, University of Manitoba researcher

But for the first time, researchers also compared the association between childhood abuse and suicidal tendencies among the Canadian Armed Forces members and Canadians in general.

Perhaps surprisingly, they found that the link between childhood abuse and suicide was weaker for military personnel compared with the Canadian general population.

"It tells us perhaps there might be something going on that is protective by being in the military," says Afifi. "That could be related to selection process where the military may be selecting more resilient individuals."

Passey agrees.  

"In the military, we are taught to cope with very stressful situations," he says. "Our military members, despite a history of childhood abuse, would be better at coping with stressful situations and therefore less likely to have suicidal ideations versus the general population."

Col. Rakesh Jetly, chief psychiatrist with the Canadian Armed Forces, says it's important to get soldiers who were exposed to child abuse to come forward if they're struggling.

"Just because people say they suffered from corporal punishment as a child, to assume that they haven't dealt with it on their own or with friends is again the piece that's missing. The study just says, 'Have you been exposed to it?' It doesn't say, 'Are you still bothered by it?'"

An accompanying editorial in JAMA Psychiatry says the findings are important for how scientists and health-care professionals "tackle the issue of understanding health outcomes, including suicide risk, among individuals who have bravely served their countries."