Child Abuse Memories May Affect Mental Health More Than the Abuse

2 min read

July 10, 2023 -- A person’s memories of childhood abuse or neglect may have a stronger impact on subsequent mental health than the experience itself, says a new study published in JAMA Psychiatry.

Researchers from King’s College London and City University New York studied 1,196 people up to age 40, some from a county in the U.S. Midwest who had court documents showing they suffered physical or sexual abuse between 1967-71 and another group with no reported experiences of abuse. They were asked about their self-reported memories of being mistreated as children and their current and past mental health. 

Study participants who, at around age 29, reported memories of abuse they experienced before age 12 had a higher number of depressive or anxiety episodes in the subsequent decade than people who didn’t recall any mistreatment, even if an official court record showed they were mistreated, the study said.

The people who had a court record showing they were mistreated, but had no memory of that mistreatment, had about the same number of depressive or anxiety episodes as people who were not mistreated as children, the study said.

"Our study reveals that how a person perceives and remembers experiences of childhood abuse or neglect has greater implications on future emotional disorders than the experience itself,” Andrea Danese of King’s College and a joint author of the study, said in a news release.

“The findings show that, even in the absence of documented evidence of childhood maltreatment, clinicians can use information provided by their clients to identify those at greater risk for subsequent mental health difficulties. The findings also suggest that early interventions that help cope with memories of abuse and/or neglect may prevent emotional problems later on."