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Psychological Responses to Abuse Impact Mental Health Most, Study Finds

Childhood experiences impact people for the rest of their lives — whether good or bad. And a new study from Professor Cathy Spatz Widom published in the Nature Human Behaviour journal tackles an age-old question. Does psychopathology emerge from a child’s objective experiences or the way they interpret them?

“For mental health outcomes, a person’s recollection of childhood maltreatment is more important than an official record,” says Widom (of both The Graduate Center and John Jay College).

Scholars have argued for decades about whether a person’s objective experience impacts their mental health more than their subjective experience. The question is important because its answer plays a huge role in treating mental health disorders that may emerge due to childhood abuse and neglect.

In the study, Widom and a fellow researcher studied 1,196 children who had both court-documented evidence of mistreatment and a personal account of the abuse. They looked at the children’s subjective view of the abuse once they reached adulthood. They found that the risk of psychopathology was highest among those with subjective reports of their adverse childhood experiences

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

“Studies based on subjective measures of maltreatment are … likely to identify correlates of unhelpful cognitions/memories about the self and the environment — which appear crucial to understanding the risk of psychopathology.”

Judges usually determine whether child abuse has taken place based on evidence provided by child protective services, police, witnesses and experts. However, such objective measures end up overlooking several cases of childhood maltreatment, the authors hold. Still, these determinations become the basis for legal actions and ultimately hinder research studies due to confidentiality barriers and the relatively low number of court-substantiated cases.

Risk of psychopathology is highest among children with a subjective account of their experiences of abuse — even if there aren’t court documents to back up the claims.

“These findings have important implications for how we study the mechanisms through which child maltreatment affects mental health and how we prevent or treat maltreatment-related psychopathology,” the authors conclude. “Interventions for psychopathology associated with childhood maltreatment can benefit from deeper understanding of the subjective experience.”