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Memories of Childhood Abuse Are Linked More Closely to Mental Illness Than Documented Experiences

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Professor Cathy Spatz Widom (GC/John Jay, Psychology) has spent years studying early childhood abuse and neglect. Her latest research, published in the Nature Human Behaviour journal, weighs in on the long-debated question: Does mental illness emerge from a child’s objective experiences of mistreatment, or the way they interpret them? 

“For mental health outcomes, a person’s recollection of childhood maltreatment is more important than an official record,” Widom says.

She and a fellow researcher reached this conclusion by studying 1,196 children with both court-documented evidence of abuse and subjective interpretations of the maltreatment once they reached adulthood. The researchers found that children with emotional recollections and interpretations of the events were at high risk for mental health disorders, whether or not court-documented reports backed up the abuse.

“Traditionally, as researchers, we have been concerned about establishing whether abuse and neglect have occurred, or what neurological or physical damage these experiences may have caused to the victims,” co-author Professor Andrea Danese of King’s College London said in a news release.  

“This is, of course, very important, but the reality may be less deterministic. The actual occurrence of the event may not be as important in the development of psychiatric disorders as how the victim has experienced and responded to the event or, more generally, how people think about their childhood experiences.”

They also found that even for severe cases of childhood maltreatment documented in court records, children with no subjective recollection of the event were at lower risk for psychopathology. 

“These results suggest that there is a need to re-conceptualize the interpretation of research findings based on subjective measures of maltreatment,” Widom says. 

The findings have significant implications for mental health treatment. 

“Our findings offer new hope that psychological treatments that address memories, cognitions and attitudes related to child maltreatment can help relieve the heavy mental health toll associated with this experience,” the researchers explained in the news release. “This is a valuable insight at a time when there may be a rise in cases of child maltreatment due to restrictions to normal life and social care imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Submitted on: JUN 12, 2020

Category: Faculty | General GC News | Psychology | Research Studies