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Discovering how negative childhood experiences lead to mental health problems in vulnerable populations

An unidentified person holds up a hand with a rainbow painted on their palm

Psychology professor Trevor Hart has dedicated much of his research career toward helping men with HIV or at risk of contracting the disease. In his latest project, he has shown that having strong social supports can mitigate the health risks of being bullied or teased for gender non-conformity.

Funded by a Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) grant, professor Hart from Ryerson's Faculty of Arts looked at how negative childhood events were associated with mental health issues, such as depression and anxiety, with the aim of understanding how to prevent risk behaviour associated with the transmission of HIV.

A total of 304 adult gay and bisexual men (both HIV negative and HIV positive) completed a questionnaire and clinical interviews delivered by professor Hart's team. The questionnaire and interviews included questions about demographics, adverse childhood events such as antigay bullying, verbal harassment during childhood for not conforming to traditional gender norms, childhood abuse, internalized homonegativity, loneliness, negative attitudes toward others and oneself, and mental health during adulthood.

Professor Hart and his team found that adverse childhood events were associated with depression and anxiety in adulthood. Moreover, they found that adverse childhood events may lead to depression and anxiety in adulthood at least partially because these events led to negative attitudes such as not being able to trust others and not believing in one's own worth as a person.

The results underscore the benefits of psychotherapy and counselling that help gay and bisexual men to challenge negative thoughts they have toward themselves due to negative childhood experiences. Professor Hart added that the results are important beyond their implications for psychotherapy, noting "the results show that we need to create more inclusive spaces early in life and in order to support the mental health of gay and bisexual boys and men, and other LGBTQ and two-spirit people."

This research was supported by a CIHR operating grant, a Career Scientist Award, and an Applied HIV Research Chair Award from the Ontario HIV Treatment Network.