Haunting Echoes: Memories of childhood abuse and neglect have a greater impact on mental health than the experience itself

Sad depressed child abuse concept

New research shows that memory and perceptions of childhood maltreatment have a greater influence on future mental health than actual experiences. Those who remembered the abuse or neglect had more episodes of depression or anxiety than those who did not recall, even with official records of abuse. This highlights the importance of memory perception in identifying potential mental health problems and providing early interventions.

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A study published in JAMA Psychiatry found that how people remember and process childhood abuse and/or neglect weighs more heavily on their mental health in later life than the experiences themselves.

New research from the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience (IoPPN) at Kings College London and the City University of New York, published July 5 in JAMA Psychiatry, found that how childhood abuse and/or neglect is remembered and processed has a greater impact on later mental health than the experience itself. The authors suggest that, even in the absence of documented evidence, clinicians can use patients’ self-reported experiences of abuse and neglect to identify those who are at risk of developing mental health difficulties and provide early interventions.

Researchers conducted a large longitudinal study following 1,196 participants up to the age of 40 to investigate how experiences of childhood abuse and/or neglect (maltreatment) affect the development of emotional disorders in adulthood.

The study found that young adults who retrospectively reported experiences of childhood maltreatment before the age of 12 had more depressive or anxiety episodes in the following decade than those who did not recall the maltreatment, even if they had an official criminal record. .

In contrast, participants who had an official record of childhood maltreatment but no retrospective recollection of the experience had a similar number of emotional disturbance episodes in adulthood compared to those with no experience of maltreatment.

Andrea Danese, professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at Kings IoPPN and co-author of the study, said: «Our study reveals that how a person perceives and remembers experiences of childhood abuse or neglect has greater implications for future emotional disorders than experience itself. The findings show that, even in the absence of documented evidence of childhood maltreatment, clinicians can use the information provided by their clients to identify individuals at increased risk for later mental health difficulties. The findings also suggest that early interventions that help cope with memories of abuse and/or neglect may prevent emotional problems later.

Participants were interviewed about their self-reported retrospective experiences of childhood maltreatment and their current and past mental health. They were then interviewed again to measure the course of symptoms of depression and anxiety.

Further analyzes revealed that the association between self-reported experiences of childhood maltreatment and a higher number of subsequent episodes of anxiety and depression was partly explained by participants’ current and past mental health, which was reported during their first interview. The authors explain that this may be because emotional disturbances can negatively affect memories, making participants more likely to recall negative events.

Professor Danese said: A better understanding of how memories of child maltreatment are maintained and exacerbated over time, and how memories affect daily functioning, could provide new insights for developing effective interventions.

Reference: Associations Between Objective and Subjective Experiences of Child Maltreatment and the Course of Emotional Disorders in Adulthood by Andrea Danese, MD, PhD and Cathy Spatz Widom, PhD, July 5, 2023, JAMA Psychiatry.
DOI: 10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2023.2140

This work is part of the Kings Maudsley Partnership for Children and Young People, a unique collaboration between specialist doctors from South London and the Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust and leading academics from Kings College London to find new ways to predict, prevent and treat mental health in children and young people. The partnership will be based in the new Pears Maudsley Center which will house the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) inpatient and outpatient services and clinical research facilities, due to open in 2024.

The research was supported by the National Institute of Mental Health, Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, National Institute on Drug Abuse, National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, National Institute on Aging, National Institute of Justice, Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, Medical Research Council and National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR) Biomedical Research Center in South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust and Kings College London.

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