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History of Childhood Abuse or Neglect Increases Risk of Major Depression

Science Update

People who were abused or neglected as children have increased risk of major depression, which often begins in childhood and has lingering effects as they mature, according to a study funded by NIMH. This was the first long-term study to examine the risk of depression in this population. The results were published in the January issue of the Archives of General Psychiatry.

Lead author Cathy Widom, Ph.D., formerly of New Jersey Medical School and currently at John Jay College in New York City, and colleagues compared 676 adults with a court-substantiated history of childhood physical and sexual abuse or neglect occurring before age 11 with 520 non-abused and non-neglected adults. The two groups were matched for age, race, sex, and approximate family social class during childhood. The average age of participants was 29 at the time of the study.

The researchers found that, overall, childhood physical abuse or multiple types of abuse increased the lifetime risk for depression. Neglect, which accounts for nearly two-thirds of the reported and substantiated cases of child maltreatment in the United States,1 increased risk for current depression. Sexual abuse did not appear to increase risk of full-blown depression, but adults with a history of childhood sexual abuse reported more depression symptoms than people who did not experience such trauma. Previously abused or neglected study participants with depression were also more likely than matched control participants to meet the diagnostic criteria for at least one other mental disorder, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), drug dependence, dysthymia (a less severe form of depression), or antisocial personality disorder. The researchers concluded that such results call for increased attention to the psychological health of abused and neglected children. Early diagnosis and treatment of mental disorders that may arise from maltreatment is important to prevent harmful, long-lasting effects on functioning.


Spatz Widom C, Dumont K, Czaja SJ. A prospective investigation of major depressive disorder and comorbidity in abused and neglected children grown up . Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2007 Jan;64(1):49-56.


1 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children, Youth, and Families. Child Maltreatment 2002: Reports from the States to the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office; 2004.