Perceptions of Past Abuse: Memory of Childhood Trauma Affects Mental Health More Than The Abuse Itself – Neuroscience News

Summary: The memory and processing of childhood abuse or neglect can have a significant impact on mental health in adulthood, more than the experience itself.

This study revealed that early self-reported experiences of abuse correlated with a higher number of episodes of depression or anxiety later in life, even when compared with individuals with official records of abuse but no retrospective memories.

The findings underscore the importance of clinicians considering patients’ memories of abuse or neglect for identification and early intervention. It also paved the way for interventions that help manage childhood trauma memories to prevent future emotional problems.

Key facts:

  1. Young adults who self-reported experiences of childhood abuse had more instances of anxiety or depression over the next decade, compared to those who had no such memories.
  2. Participants with official records of abuse but no recall of these experiences showed patterns of emotional health similar to those with no history of abuse.
  3. The association between self-reported childhood abuse and future emotional disturbances was due in part to participants’ current and past mental health, suggesting that emotional disturbances can negatively bias memories.

Source: King’s College London

New research from the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience (IoPPN) at King’s College London and City University New York, was published today in JAMA Psychiatryhave found that how to remember and process childhood abuse and/or neglect has a greater impact on mental health later in life than the experience itself.

The authors suggest that, even in the absence of documented evidence, clinicians can use self-reported experiences of abuse and neglect by patients to identify those at risk for mental health difficulties and provide early intervention.

Researchers undertook a large longitudinal study that followed 1,196 participants through the age of 40 to investigate how childhood experiences of abuse and/or neglect impacted the development of emotional disorders in adulthood.

The study found that young adults who retrospectively self-reported experiences of childhood abuse before age 12 had more episodes of depression or anxiety over the next decade than those who had no memory of abuse, even if they had official court records.

In contrast, participants who had an official record of childhood abuse, but did not remember the experience retrospectively, had the same number of episodes of emotional disturbance in adulthood as those who had no experience of abuse.

Andrea Danese, Professor of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry at King’s IoVAT 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 disturbances than experiences of childhood abuse or neglect. itself.

“The findings suggest that, despite the absence of documented evidence of child abuse, clinicians can use information provided by their clients to identify those at greater risk for subsequent mental health difficulties.

“These findings also suggest that early interventions that help address memories of abuse and/or neglect can prevent emotional problems later in life.”

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

Further analysis revealed that the association between self-reported experiences of childhood abuse and a greater number of subsequent episodes of anxiety and depression was partly explained by the participants’ current and past mental health, which was reported during their first interview.

The authors explain that this could be because emotional distraction can negatively bias memories, making participants more likely to remember negative events.

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

This work is part of the King’s Maudsley Partnership for Children and Adolescents, a unique collaboration between specialist doctors from South London and the Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust and leading academics at King’s College London to find new ways to predict, prevent and treat mental health disorders in children and youth.

The partnership will be based at the new Pears Maudsley Center which will be home to inpatient and outpatient Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) services as well as a clinical research facility, due to open in 2024.

Funding: This 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 , the Medical Research Council and the National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR) Biomedical Research Center in South London and the Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust and King’s College London.

About this mental health research and childhood trauma news

Author: Amelia Remington
Source: King’s College London
Contact: Amelia Remmington – King’s College London
Picture: The image is credited to Neuroscience News

Original Research: Closed access.
“Relationship Between Objective and Subjective Experiences of Child Abuse and the Journey of Emotional Disorder in Adulthood” by Andrea Danese et al. JAMA Psychiatry


Association Between Objective and Subjective Experiences of Child Abuse and the Journey of Emotional Disorder in Adulthood


A history of childhood abuse is associated with an unfavorable disease course for emotional disturbances. However, the origin and mechanisms underlying this association are unknown.


To examine the relative associations of objective and subjective measures of childhood abuse and continuance in psychopathology with the course of emotional disturbances in adulthood.

Design, Setup and Participants

This prospective cohort study followed up to 40 years of age participants living in a metropolitan area in the US Midwest with a record of evidence of childhood physical and sexual abuse and/or neglect between 1967 and 1971 and a demographically matched group of participants who had not experienced abuse or neglect in childhood. The data collected was analyzed between October 2021 and April 2022.


Objective experiences of child abuse before the age of 12 years were measured prospectively through official court records, whereas subjective experiences were measured through retrospective self-reports at a mean age (SD) of 29 (3.8) years. Current and prior lifetime psychopathology was also assessed at a median age of 29 (3.8) years.

Main Results and Measures

Depressive and anxiety symptoms were measured at a mean (SD) age of 39.5 (3.5) and 41.2 (3.5) years using the Poisson regression model.


In a cohort of 1196 participants (582 [48.7%] women and 614 [51.3%] men) followed up to age 40 years, those with an objective plus subjective measure of childhood abuse had more subsequent follow-up phases with depression or anxiety than controls (depression:event rate ratio [IRR]2.28 [95% CI, 1.65-3.15]; anxiety: IRR, 2.30 [95% CI, 1.54-3.42]), as was done with subjective measures only (depression: IRR, 1.49 [95% CI, 1.02-2.18]; anxiety: IRR, 1.58 [95% CI, 0.99-2.52]). In contrast, participants with objective measures alone did not have more phases of follow-up with depression or anxiety (depression: IRR, 1.37 [95% CI, 0.89-2.11]; anxiety: IRR, 1.40 [95% CI, 0.84-2.31]). Current and lifetime psychopathology as measured at the time subjective experience was assessed explained its association with later emotional disturbance in participants on the subjective only measure but not in those on the objective plus subjective measure.

Conclusion and Relevance

In this cohort study, the association seen between childhood abuse and adverse emotional disturbances over the next decade is largely attributable to the subjective experience of abuse, which is partly explained by continuity in psychopathology. Modification of the subjective experience of childhood abuse may enhance the longitudinal course of emotional disturbance.

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