Adverse childhood experiences exacerbate the association between day-to-day discrimination and mental health symptomatology in undergraduate students

Emily C. Helminen, Jillian R. Scheer, Katie M. Edwards, Joshua C. Felver

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

12 Scopus citations


Background: Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and day-to-day discrimination (hereafter, “discrimination”) both contribute to mental health symptomatology in young adulthood, but how these constructs interact and whether they are associated with mental health remains unclear. This study evaluated whether the relation between discrimination in young adulthood and mental health symptomatology varied as a function of ACEs exposure. Methods: Undergraduates (n = 251) completed self-report measures related to ACEs, discrimination, and mental health symptomatology (i.e., depression, anxiety, somatization, and psychological distress). Linear and logistic regression models were implemented to test for potential exacerbation effects of ACEs on the relation between discrimination and mental health symptomatology. Results: Participants with greater discrimination exposure and ACEs reported significantly more depression, anxiety, and somatic symptoms, along with more psychological distress, relative to those with less discrimination exposure and few or no ACEs. Limitations: Data were cross-sectional, thus, causality cannot be inferred. ACEs and discrimination measures examined ACE counts and general discrimination, respectively, which did not allow for examination of possible differences across specific ACEs (e.g., childhood sexual abuse vs. neglect) or specific types of discrimination (e.g., sexual-orientation-based discrimination vs. race-based discrimination). Conclusions: These results are among the first to inform the conceptualization of ACEs and discrimination in etiological models of young adults’ mental health. Both ACEs and discrimination, rather than exposure to only one of these stressors, may be synergistically associated with young adults’ mental health symptomatology. Clinicians could address stress-sensitive mental health issues by assessing for both ACEs and discrimination exposure.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)338-347
Number of pages10
JournalJournal of Affective Disorders
StatePublished - Jan 15 2022


  • Adverse childhood experiences
  • Discrimination
  • Mental health symptoms
  • Undergraduate college students
  • Young adults

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Clinical Psychology
  • Psychiatry and Mental health


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