Memories And Perception Of Childhood Abuse And Neglect Influence Mental Health

Our lives are driven by the stories behind certain key incidents that may have taken place in our childhood. And we end up being and living in a certain way, driven by the stories and the meaning that we have attached to those happenings. New research has found that the way childhood abuse and/or neglect is remembered and processed has a greater impact on later mental health than the experience itself.

According to recent study, physicians can identify patients at risk of developing mental health disorders and provide early interventions based on their self-reported experiences of abuse and neglect, even in cases where there is no documented evidence.

A large longitudinal study following 1,196 participants aged 40 years was conducted by researchers from the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience (IoPPN) at King’s College London and City University New York to examine the effects of childhood experiences of abuse and/or neglect (maltreatment) on the development of emotional disorders in adulthood. JAMA Psychiatry reported the research findings.

Perception of childhood neglect experiences influence future emotional disorders

According to the study, even if they had an official court record, young adults who retrospectively self-reported experiences of abuse as children before the age of 12 experienced more depression or anxiety episodes throughout the next ten years than those who did not recall maltreatment.

On the other hand, individuals with an official record of maltreatment during childhood but no recollection of the incident had an equal amount of emotional disorder episodes as those without any maltreatment experience as adults.

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

During the interview process, participants discussed their past and present mental health as well as their self-reported retrospective experiences of childhood maltreatment. The duration of their anxiety and depressive symptoms was subsequently assessed during a follow-up interview.

Subsequent analyses showed that the participants reported current and previous mental health from their initial interview partially explained the connection between self-reported experiences of maltreatment as a kid and a higher number of subsequent episodes of anxiety and depression. The authors elucidate that this may be because emotional problems have the potential to negatively bias memories, increasing the likelihood that individuals would remember unfavourable experiences.

Better understanding of how memories affect daily functioning

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 work is part of the King’s Maudsley Partnership for Children and Young People, a novel partnership between top academics at King’s College London and specialised clinicians from the South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust to discover novel approaches to the diagnosis, management, and prevention of mental health disorders in children and adolescents.

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 have a greater impact on mental health than the experience itself.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 5 July 2023. <>.

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