Previous research has linked childhood trauma to mental health struggles later in life, but can it have implications for treatment? A study published in Journal of Affective Disorders suggests that adverse childhood experiences can lead to increased severity of symptoms and worse treatment outcomes for individuals with depression.
Adverse childhood experiences can include various types of experiences, such as sexual abuse, neglect, or witnessing violence. These experiences may involve the death of a close family member or friend, parents going through a major upheaval like divorce, traumatic sexual experiences, violence or abuse, and extreme illness or injury.
These experiences can have rippling effects that continue to have repercussions on individuals well into adulthood. Suffering through these traumatic experiences in childhood have been linked to major depressive disorder later in life.
Previous research has also shown that people who have experienced adverse childhood experiences tend to have more severe depressive symptoms. However, there is still a lack of understanding about how these negative events in childhood can impact the outcomes of depression treatment. This study aimed to address that question and also explore the different types of childhood trauma to better understand which ones are linked to more severe depression.
For their study, Eugenia Giampetruzzi and colleagues utilized 454 adult patients who were being seen for major depression or persistent depressive disorder at a treatment program. All participants met with a psychiatrist, and most were evaluated by a psychologist. Medical records and referral forms were reviewed. Participants completed self-report measures on childhood traumatic events, depression, treatment resistance (based on treatment failure, severity of depressive episode, and duration of depressive episode), inpatient admissions, and suicide attempts.
The results showed that a majority of the participants with depression had experienced at least one childhood trauma, and about half of them had experienced two or more adverse childhood events. The most common events reported were major upheaval between parents and the death of a close family member or friend.
Higher scores on the measure of adverse childhood experiences were associated with higher depression scores, more lifetime suicide attempts, and more inpatient admissions. In particular, experiencing three or more adverse childhood experiences was linked to higher depression scores.
On the other hand, there were no significant differences in scores between those who experienced one or two adverse childhood experiences and those who experienced none. This is likely because people who had three or more adverse childhood experiences also tended to experience violence or sexual trauma, which are more severe events.
Overall, the findings from this study suggest that greater exposure to adverse childhood experiences increases the severity of symptoms and treatment outcomes for patients with treatment-resistant depression. The study also indicates that specific subtypes of childhood trauma, such as violence and sexual trauma, may play a key role in these associations. Therefore, it’s important to consider both cumulative risk models (which take into account the number of adverse experiences) and individual risk models (which consider specific types of trauma) when analyzing the effects of childhood trauma on depressive symptoms and treatment outcomes.
While this study provides valuable insights into depression outcomes for individuals who have experienced childhood trauma, it’s essential to acknowledge its limitations. One limitation is that relying on self-report measures to recall childhood trauma can be unreliable due to memory and bias. Additionally, having information about the timing and severity of the childhood traumas would have provided a better understanding of their impact.
“Our study adds to a growing body of researching by demonstrating that exposure to multiple ACE subtypes, particularly sexual and physical trauma, is associated with depression symptom severity, inpatient admission(s), and history of suicidality,” the researchers concluded. “This relationship is specifically demonstrated in a large and highly generalizable sample of community outpatients suffering with severe and refractory symptoms of MDD.”
“By comparing leading models for operationalizing childhood adversity, our approach illustrates the overwhelming impact of recurring and cooccurring ACEs in conferring risk for psychopathology severity and contributes to the methodological and conceptual framework used to operationalize child adversity.”
The study, “The impact of adverse childhood experiences on adult depression severity and treatment outcomes“, was authored by Eugenia Giampetruzzi, Amanda C. Tan, Allison LoPilato, Brandon Kitay, Patricio Riva Posse, William M. McDonald, Adriana P. Hermida, Andrea Crowell, and Rachel Hershenberg.