KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Experts say cases of abuse, like the recent case of a 10 year-old girl wasting away while locked in a closet, can have lifetime effects on the abuse victims. Not all the signs of abuse are physical, some are mental.
And unlike the physical scars, mental scars can last for decades if they go untreated.
A recent study in the American Academy of Pediatrics shows that "toxic stress," a feeling of constant stress, in a child's life can disrupt brain circuitry. That can have an impact on a child's mental well-being as well as behavior.
"We're learning more about how it's not just viruses and illnesses that impact lifelong health, but also the effects of stress and chaos on a child's life," says Dr Jennifer Mellick, with Pediatric Partners in Overland Park.
Dr Mellick says pediatricians need to be on the lookout for the signs that the child is struggling mentally.
"A naughty child versus ADHD versus bipolar versus PTSD, we don't exactly know (the difference)" she says, "so sometimes it's just getting to know your families and your patients."
Martha Gershun works with abused kids with Jackson County CASA. She says lots of abuse cases involve physical wounds, like the 10 year-old girl found last Friday locked in a closet. She was rushed to the hospital, malnourished and only weighing 32 pounds. But there are also consequences if the mental wounds, like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, are untreated.
"We're quicker with a soldier returning from Iraq or Afghanistan to recognize that diagnosis (of PTSD)," says Gershun, "with children we might just say they're misbehaving."
Dr Mellick says she always talks to her patients about preventing all kinds of illnesses. While there's no easy prevention plan for child abuse, she says it starts with the community showing it cares about its kids.
"Eventually I would love for Martha (Gershun) to not have a job," says Dr Mellick.
Experts say if abused and neglected kids don't get treatment for their mental stress or PTSD, if they don't learn healthy ways to deal with stress, they face a whole host of physical illnesses later in life, including a higher risk of things like high blood pressure, heart attack, and diabetes.