Childhood Abuse Memories Shape Adult Emotional Disorders

How childhood abuse and/or neglect is recalled and processed has a greater impact on mental health later in life than the incident itself, according to research. Even in the absence of documented evidence, the authors of the study argue that physicians can use patients’ self-reported experiences of abuse and neglect to identify those at risk of developing mental health disorders and provide early interventions.

The Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology, and Neuroscience (IoPPN) at King’s College London and City University New York conducted a large longitudinal study that followed 1,196 participants to the age of 40 years to investigate how childhood abuse and/or neglect (maltreatment) impact the development of emotional disorders in adulthood.

Perception of childhood abuse or neglect has greater implications for future emotional disorders

The study discovered that young adults who self-reported childhood abuse before the age of 12 had a higher frequency of depressed or anxious episodes over the next decade than those who did not remember mistreatment, even if they had an official court record. Participants who had an official record of childhood abuse but no retroactive recollection of the incident, on the other hand, had the same number of emotional disorder episodes in adulthood as those who had no history of maltreatment.

Andrea Danese, Professor of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry at King’s IoPPN and joint author of the study, said: “Our study reveals that how a person perceives and remembers experiences of childhood abuse or neglect has greater implications on future emotional disorders than the experience itself.

The findings show that, even in the absence of documented evidence of childhood maltreatment, clinicians can use information provided by their clients to identify those at greater risk for subsequent 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 on.”

Emotional disorders can negatively bias memories

Participants were asked about their self-reported retroactive childhood maltreatment experiences, as well as their current and prior mental health. They were then re-interviewed to track the progression of their depression and anxiety symptoms.

Further analyses found that the link between self-reported childhood maltreatment and a higher number of subsequent anxiety and depression episodes was explained in part by participants’ current and prior mental health, as stated during their first interview. According to the authors, this could be because emotional illnesses can negatively bias memories, causing people to recall negative events more frequently.

Understanding memories can help to develop effective interventions for mental health difficulties

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

This research is part of the King’s Maudsley Partnership for Children and Young People, a unique collaboration between specialist clinicians from the South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust and leading academics at King’s College London to discover new methods for predicting, preventing, and treating mental health disorders in children and adolescents.

The Partnership will be housed in the new Pears Maudsley Centre, which is planned to open in 2024 and will house Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) inpatient and outpatient services, as well as clinical research facilities.

The National Institute of Mental Health, the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, the National Institute on Ageing, the National Institute of Justice, the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, the Medical Research Council, and the National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR) Biomedical Research Centre at South London and Maudsley NHS Trust funded the study.

Story Source:
Materials provided by King’s College London. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

Journal Reference:
Andrea Danese, Cathy Spatz Widom. Associations Between Objective and Subjective Experiences of Childhood Maltreatment and the Course of Emotional Disorders in Adulthood. JAMA Psychiatry, 2023; DOI: 10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2023.2140

Page citation:
King’s College London. “Memories of childhood abuse and neglect has greater impact on mental health than the experience itself.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 5 July 2023. <>.

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