Childhood Abuse and Adulthood Depression


Depression is a relentless state of sadness that may lead to mental and physical health problems. This paper examines two research articles that look into the issue of childhood abuse and adulthood depression. An analysis and comparison of the two studies are presented. It is evident that childhood experiences play a significant role in the mental health status of an individual during adulthood. Traumatic experiences in childhood affect the outlook of the person as an adult as well as their adaptation to various situations, which affects the treatment of depression.


Depression is a persistent state of sadness or being moody (Gilbert, 2016). A depressed person experiences these feelings with a high intensity that can lead to physical and mental health problems. Depression ranges from low, mild to severe states, which necessitates treatment. This condition is a major challenge in society not only among adults but also for young people. Researchers have found diverse causes of depression. However, the major cause is traumatic life events during the development stages of childhood because these stressors form a lifetime mental impact that makes one vulnerable to depression later in life (Mandelli, Petrelli, & Serretti, 2015).

Symptoms of Depression

According to Gilbert (2016), patients with depression often experience normal feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and anxiety, among others. However, the uniqueness of these symptoms is their prolonged state irrespective of dealing with the trigger of the feeling. These feelings culminate in psychopathic and severe suicidal thoughts and attempts. Symptoms of depression can be complex and hard to identify. Therefore, clinical diagnosis is important to arrive at the best remedy without delay.

The American Psychological Association (2015) identifies other symptoms of depression, such as irritability, a sense of unimportance, hopelessness, loss of appetite, loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities, physical pain, withdrawal, and isolation. Depressed people are often lost in thoughts, which may cause suicidal ideations and attempts. Exposure to triggers, which are often personal, leads to episodes of depression.

Overview and Types of Child Maltreatment

Children face adverse environments and episodes of maltreatment during their upbringing. Even though many of these episodes go unnoticed due to the inability of the child to express themselves, the childhood issues manifest later in life in the form of depressive tendencies. The events that could lead to possible trauma in children include abuse, neglect, and ill-treatment. The abuse may range from physical, emotional, and sexual, whether through touch, intention, or actual contact. Physical abuse occurs when a person inflicts injury or harm on the child’s body, for example, through beating. Emotional abuse can be expressed through rejection, intimidation, or threatening (Mandelli, Petrelli, & Serretti, 2015). A child can be neglected through denial of the required needs as per Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which include basic physical needs, protection, love, belonging, and self-esteem. These forms of abuse deny the child an ideal environment for proper development. Consequently, the child grows with feelings of fear and mistrust, which impairs adaptation, thereby contributing to the psychological factors that affect the severity and treatment of depression. Some of these psychological factors include negative thinking, impaired coping skills, and poor emotional intelligence.

Biology of Childhood Trauma and Depression

Traumatic events during developmental stages cause a substantial mental impact on an individual, which later configures depression and other stress disorders in adulthood. The neuroendocrine and the autonomic response system to stress become sensitized, and the immunity to stress and depression decreases (Gilbert, 2016). Childhood posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) prevents the ideal development of the child, which later leads to their vulnerability (American Psychological Association, 2015)

Studies show that traumatic events in a child’s life affect the brain. The major areas affected include the frontal lobe, the amygdala, and the hippocampus. These brain regions are essential in emotional adaptation and response to stress. Once affected, there is reduced control of emotion, aggression, and motivation, which directly influence the development of stress and depression.

Treatment of depression in victims of childhood trauma is dependent on their personality as well as biological and social factors. Innate biological characteristics can enhance one’s perspective due to personality preferences. On the other hand, social factors include one’s ability to learn the necessary skills to aid in wellness.

Scholarly Studies on Adverse Early Life Events and Depression

Study 1

Lee and McLanahan (2015) looked at the effects of family instability on the cognitive, social, and emotive wellbeing of the child during school years. The authors looked into the different family structure alterations and the ensuing impact on the health of the child. One strength of this article is that it examines the impact of time on the overall outcomes. Another strength is that it evaluates the impact of gender and race on the family instability outcomes (Lee & McLanahan, 2015). The study reveals that the volatility of family has a direct association with the upbringing and progression of the child. Nevertheless, the magnitude of the impact is dependent on the form of change, the effect evaluated, and the dynamics of the population investigated, such as ethnicity. Overall, changing from a two-parent upbringing to a single-parent upbringing leads to deleterious effects on the child’s wellbeing. The child’s social and emotional wellbeing are affected the most when compared to the cognitive development. The negative impact of changing from two-parent families was larger among white children than Hispanic children (Lee & McLanahan, 2015). On the other hand, changing from a single-parent family to a two-parent family had more negative consequences among Hispanic children.

Study 2

Suzuki, Poon, Papadopoulos, Kumari, and Cleare (2014) examined stress reactivity in people with and without a history of early years disturbance by quantifying cortisol rejoinders to the impassive viewing of traumatic images including pictures depicting childhood trauma. Also, subjects with and without current diagnoses of depression were examined to determine whether cortisol stress rejoinders can cause resistance or susceptibility to depression. A total of 41 subjects (17 participants with a history of childhood trauma and 24 such a history) were used in the first phase. The second phase involved 39 depressed subjects (21 with a history of childhood disturbance and 18 without such a history). Salivary cortisol levels were quantified in three stages: before, during and viewing images depicting childhood abuse. Cortisol stress reactions were low and equal to that in depressed and undepressed subjects. Conversely, cortisol stress levels were elevated depressed participants compared to those without depression and devoid of a history of childhood trauma. The study concluded that a history of childhood disturbances has a profound impact on adulthood cortisol reactions to stress because depressed people with a history of childhood suffering had diminished cortisol rejoinders. The main strength of this article is that it uses the simulation of real-life stressful activities to induce stress before measuring cortisol levels.

A Comparison of the Two Studies

In both studies, there is a link between adverse childhood events of sexual abuse and marital instability, and depression. Survivors of childhood trauma form mental schema that determines how they respond to stressful events in their entire life. Children who were mishandled and abused have a problem trusting people around them and often resort to isolation, which is dangerous especially during stressful times or depressive feelings.

Childhood trauma also forms a lasting influence on an individual. It is clear from the two studies that people who have gone through traumatic events in childhood are more susceptible to depression than those who grew up in healthy environments (Kouros et al. 2014). Furthermore, childhood experiences also affect the treatment and recovery of patients with depression. The victims find it challenging to adapt because of the mental schema formed, which impairs learning and coping skills that are essential during treatment. Abuse at a young age instills fear, hatred, and negativity in a child who later in life views every aspect of life differently than in a child who did not experience childhood abuse (Orlans & Levy, 2014).

Divorce and poor parental interaction coupled with maltreatment and a lack of intimacy were major factors that cause depression in adulthood. Subjects from divorced families demonstrated the inability to address their stressful situations compared to those who were brought up by both parents in stable families. According to Kouros, Papp, Goeke-Morey, and Cummings (2014) there is a strong relationship between marital issues and depression. Development of stress at some point in life becomes inevitable due to decreased support. Consequently, the victim displays depressive symptoms.


Depression is a killer disorder that has created a lot of anxiety in many families. Many people develop depression over time or at a particular stage in their life. It is important to note that depression does not occur as a single event but as a process whose foundation may be biological, psychological, or social. There is empirical evidence that childhood traumatic events lead to lifetime effects including depression. A large number of adults with depression admit to experiencing multiple traumatic events during their childhood.


American Psychological Association. (2015). Depression. Web.

Gilbert, P. (2016). Depression: The evolution of powerlessness. London, UK: Routledge.

Kouros, C. D., Papp, L. M., Goeke-Morey, M. C., & Cummings, E. M. (2014). Spillover between marital quality and parent–child relationship quality: Parental depressive symptoms as moderators. Journal of Family Psychology, 28(3), 315-325.

Lee, D., & McLanahan, S. (2015). Family structure transitions and child development: Instability, selection, and population heterogeneity. American Sociological Review, 80(4), 738-763.

Mandelli, L., Petrelli, C., & Serretti, A. (2015). The role of specific early trauma in adult depression: A meta-analysis of published literature. Childhood trauma and adult depression. European Psychiatry, 30(6), 665-680.

Orlans, M., & Levy, T. M. (2014). Attachment, trauma, and healing: Understanding and treating attachment disorder in children, families and adults. Philadelphia, PA: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Suzuki, A., Poon, L., Papadopoulos, A. S., Kumari, V., & Cleare, A. J. (2014). Long term effects of childhood trauma on cortisol stress reactivity in adulthood and relationship to the occurrence of depression. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 50, 289-299.

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