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Some children are unaffected by mental illness despite exposure to childhood adversity. These children are typically considered resilient. The objective of this study was to follow up such resilient children in adulthood to characterize mental health status, substance use, and functional outcomes.


The analysis was based on the prospective, representative Great Smoky Mountains Study (N=1,420). Participants were assessed for psychiatric disorders and exposure to adversity with the structured Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Assessment interview up to eight times in childhood (ages 9–16; 6,674 observations). In total, 1,266 participants (86.3%) were followed up in adulthood at ages 25 and 30 to assess psychiatric disorders, substance use disorders, and functional outcomes.


Seventy-five percent of the sample had met criteria for a psychiatric disorder or displayed subthreshold psychiatric problems by age 16. The number of adverse childhood experiences was strongly associated with childhood psychiatric status. Of children exposed to multiple adversities (N=650), 12.2% (N=63) did not display psychiatric problems. This group meets common definitions of childhood resilience. In adulthood, these individuals showing childhood resilience had greater risk of anxiety (risk ratio=2.9, 95% CI=1.0–9.1) and depressive (risk ratio=4.5, 95% CI=1.1–16.7) disorders, as well as worse physical health (means ratio=0.7, 95% CI=0.5–0.9) and financial or educational functioning (means ratio=0.6, 95% CI=0.5–0.7), compared with individuals exposed to fewer childhood adversities. These individuals showing childhood resilience did not have elevated risk for substance use disorders.


Resilience to childhood adversity was uncommon. Individuals who appeared resilient in childhood were at risk for delayed poorer outcomes in adulthood. Public health efforts should prioritize minimizing early adversity exposure over promoting resilience.

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