A new study provides evidence that individuals who have experienced childhood maltreatment and suffer from depression tend to have greater difficulty understanding and decoding emotions in others’ faces. This finding, which appears in Clinical Psychology & Psychotherapy, sheds light on the challenges faced by a subgroup of people with depression, emphasizing the importance of recognizing and addressing their specific needs.
Major Depressive Disorder (MDD), often referred to simply as depression, is a common mental health condition that affects millions of people worldwide. It’s characterized by persistent sadness, low energy, and difficulty finding joy in daily life. While we’ve made progress in understanding depression, it’s a complex condition with different variations. Researchers have been exploring various factors that may contribute to depression and its severity, and one area of interest is childhood experiences.
Childhood maltreatment encompasses various forms of abuse and neglect that some individuals endure during their early years. These experiences can have lasting effects on mental health and well-being. Previous studies have suggested a link between childhood maltreatment and a higher risk of developing depression later in life. However, not all individuals with depression have experienced childhood maltreatment, and researchers want to understand why some individuals with depression may have more severe symptoms and difficulties in their daily lives.
“In clinical practice, Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) is typically treated as a single disease entity. However, research has shown that MDD is a markedly heterogeneous mental disorder with significant variation in symptom manifestations as well as underlying risk factors,” explained study author Kristine Kahr Nilsson, an associate psychology professor at Aalborg University in Denmark.
“Individuals with MDD who have experienced childhood maltreatment appear to be a particularly vulnerable patient group, as they tend to have a more severe and intractable illness course. Nevertheless, their psychological characteristics have not been sufficiently investigated. In our study, we therefore examined their ability to decode emotions, as this is important for their social and emotional functioning.”
For their study, the researchers recruited participants who had been diagnosed with MDD and were receiving antidepressant medication. This ensured that all participants had a formal diagnosis of MDD by medical professionals adhering to clinical standards. A total of 342 individuals met the inclusion criteria for the study.
The participants were asked about their experiences of childhood maltreatment using a questionnaire called the Adverse Childhood Experience Questionnaire (ACE-Q). This questionnaire included questions about different types of maltreatment, such as emotional, physical, and sexual abuse, as well as emotional and physical neglect during their first 18 years of life.
To assess their emotion decoding abilities, the participants completed a test known as the Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test (RMET). This test measures the capacity to understand complex mental states by looking at the subtle expressions in people’s eyes. It contains various sub-tests that require participants to determine the emotional state expressed by photos of faces.
The study’s findings revealed that individuals with MDD who had a history of childhood maltreatment exhibited poorer emotion decoding abilities compared to those with MDD but no such history. This suggests that early life experiences, such as childhood maltreatment, can influence an individual’s ability to understand and interpret emotions in others, particularly in the context of facial expressions.
“Individuals with MDD who have experienced childhood maltreatment differ from individuals with MDD without such a past in that they have difficulties in decoding facial expressions of positive and negative emotions,” Nilsson told PsyPost.
Interestingly, the difficulties in emotion decoding were most pronounced when it came to positive and negative emotions, while no significant differences were observed for neutral emotions. This suggests that individuals who have experienced childhood maltreatment may struggle more when trying to understand the emotions of happiness, sadness, anger, and fear in others.
“The emotion decoding problems of the maltreated MDD patients were confined to valanced emotions, i.e., positive and negative emotions, such as anger and joy,” Nilsson explained. “It is unclear why this is the case, but it is conceivable that the compromising and threatening experiences that accompany childhood maltreatment create specific biases when interpreting valanced emotional expressions.”
These findings have important implications for clinical practice. It’s crucial for healthcare professionals to recognize that individuals with MDD and a history of childhood maltreatment may face additional challenges in their treatment journey. Understanding their difficulties in emotion decoding can guide tailored interventions to improve their social interactions and overall well-being.
While this study provides valuable insights, it’s essential to acknowledge its limitations. One limitation is that childhood maltreatment was measured retrospectively through self-report, which may be subject to memory biases. Future research can delve deeper into the developmental and neurological processes underlying emotion decoding difficulties in individuals with MDD who have a history of childhood maltreatment. Understanding these mechanisms can help refine treatment strategies and provide better support for this subgroup of individuals.
“It remains to be examined whether the identified emotion decoding problems in MDD patients with childhood maltreatment exacerbate their depressive symptoms,” Nilsson said. “This would be a relevant subject for investigation in a longitudinal study that follows these patients over time.”
The study, “Valence in the eyes: An emotion decoding profile of adults with major depressive disorder and a history of childhood maltreatment“, was authored by Kristine Kahr Nilsson, Signe Nygaard, Simone Ebsen, and Ole Karkov Østergård.