What Haunts Child Abuse Victims? The Memory, Study Finds

For generations, our society has wavered about how best to heal those who had a terrible childhood experience.

Should these memories be unearthed and allowed their destructive power to disappear? Should it be gently molded into something less painful or should it be left alone?

Researchers at King’s College London and the City University of New York tested this conundrum by conducting an unusual experiment.

Researchers interviewed a group of 1,196 American adults repeatedly about their levels of anxiety and depression over a 15-year period. Of these, 665 were unknown to the subjects, but court records indicate that they had been physically, sexually, or neglected before the age of 12. rice field.

However, not all of them told the researchers that they had been abused, which made a big difference.

The study found that 492 adults who reported being abused and had court records supporting the abuse had significantly higher levels of depression and anxiety than a control group with an undocumented history of abuse. published last week Doctor of JAMA Psychiatry. Higher levels were also found in the 252 subjects who reported being abused without forensic records reflecting abuse.

However, the 173 subjects who did not report having been abused, despite court records showing that they had been abused, were as distressed as the general population.

The findings suggest that how people frame and interpret childhood events has a significant impact on their mental health in adulthood, according to King’s College London. said Andrea Danese, PhD, professor of child and adolescent psychiatry and one of the study’s co-authors.

“It goes back to the almost stoic message of what you make out of experience,” he said. “If we can change the way we interpret our experiences and feel more in control, we can improve our mental health in the long run.”

of meta-analysis Of 16 studies of child abuse published in 2019, Dr. Danese and colleagues found that 52% of those with a record of child abuse did not report it in interviews with researchers, and those who did They found that 56% had an undocumented abuse history.

This discrepancy may be partly due to measurement issues, court records may not document all abuse histories, and self-reports of Dr. Danese said it could also reflect being influenced by levels of depression.

“There are many reasons why people forget those experiences in one way or another, but there are also many reasons why others misinterpret some of those experiences as neglect or abuse,” he says.

But even considering these warnings, he said, it was notable that adults had documented histories of being abused but did not report it. They said they had no memory of the event, had different interpretations, or chose not to share their memory with the interviewer. — looked healthier.

“If the meaning you give to these experiences isn’t central to your childhood memories and you don’t feel the need to report it, you’re more likely to improve your mental health over time,” he says. .

Childhood traumatic experiences have been the subject of some of the fiercest battles in psychiatry. Early in his career, Sigmund Freud assumed that much of his patient’s behavior reflected a history of childhood sexual abuse, but later retracted this, claiming it was due to subconscious desires.

In the 1980s and 1990s, therapists used techniques such as hypnosis and age regression to help clients uncover memories of childhood abuse. Those methods have been set back under fire from mainstream psychiatry.

Recently, many Americans have embraced therapies aimed at managing traumatic memories, which have been found to be effective in treating post-traumatic stress disorder. Experts increasingly advocate screening patients for adverse childhood experiences as an important step in providing physical and mental health treatment.

Dr. Danese, who works in the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience at King’s College, said the new findings in JAMA psychiatry suggest that treatments that seek to uncover suppressed memories and reduce depression and anxiety can be effective. He said he was suggesting no.

But he cautioned that the findings should not be interpreted as advocating avoidance of painful memories, which can make painful memories “more frightening” in the long run. Instead, they point to potential treatments that aim to “reorganize” and alleviate memory.

“It’s not about erasing the memory, it’s about having it and having more control over it so that it doesn’t scare you,” he says.

Memory has always been a challenge in the field of child protection, he said, because many abuse cases involve children under the age of three, when lasting memories begin to form. David Finkelhoe, director of the Center for Child Crime Research at the University of New Hampshire, was not involved in the study.

When treating people with a history of abuse, clinicians must rely on sketchy, incomplete and variable descriptions, he said. “It’s not like we have a choice because all we have are their memories,” he said.

He cautioned against concluding that forgotten abuse has no lasting consequences. Early abuse was characterized by what he described as “residues”: difficulty regulating emotions, feelings of worthlessness, or, in the case of sexual abuse victims, the urge to provide sexual gratification to others. can appear through

Elizabeth Loftus, a psychologist at the University of California, Irvine and a prominent skeptic of the reliability of memories of abuse, noted that the study did not come to a different conclusion supported by the data. “Forgetting abuse can be a healthy response,” she said.

“They might have said, in a way, people who don’t remember are better off and you might not want to tamper with them,” she said. “They don’t say that. To me that’s very interesting.”

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