Violence occurs at multiple ecological levels and can harm mental health. However, studies of adolescents’ experience of violence have often ignored the community context of violence, and vice versa. We examined how personal experience of severe physical violence and living in areas with high levels of neighbourhood disorder during adolescence combine to associate with mental health at the transition to adulthood and which factors mitigate this.
Data were from the Environmental Risk Longitudinal Twin Study, a nationally representative birth cohort of 2232 British twins. Participants’ experience of severe physical violence during adolescence and past-year symptoms of psychiatric disorder were assessed via interviews at age 18. Neighbourhood disorder was reported by residents when participants were aged 13–14. Potential protective factors of maternal warmth, sibling warmth, IQ, and family socio-economic status were assessed during childhood, and perceived social support at age 18.
Personal experience of severe physical violence during adolescence was associated with elevated odds of age-18 psychiatric disorder regardless of neighbourhood disorder exposure. Cumulative effects of exposure to both were evident for internalising and thought disorder, but not externalising disorder. For adolescents exposed to severe physical violence only, higher levels of perceived social support (including from family and friends) were associated with lower odds of psychiatric disorder. For those who also lived in areas with high neighbourhood disorder, only family support mitigated their risk.
Increasing support or boosting adolescents’ perceptions of their existing support network may be effective in promoting their mental health following violence exposure.