Resilience doesn’t equate to positive outcomes for individuals who have experienced early childhood maltreatment

Professor James Li

Early childhood maltreatment can have long lasting effects that follow a person into adulthood. Although the majority of kids who experience maltreatment do not go on to develop depression, a study by James Li, PhD, associate professor of psychology and Waisman Center investigator, found that individuals with early childhood trauma may experience difficulties in many areas of their lives even in the absence of a mood disorder.

Around 25% of kids that experience maltreatment early in life develop a mood disorder such as depression later in life. Those who don’t are labeled as resilient, or able to positively adapt to adversity. However, Li suggests that basing resilience solely on psychiatric outcomes may miss many other areas of an individual’s life that could be negatively affected. “You can’t just think of resilience as not having a psychopathology. It might be harmful to do that for the kids,” says Li.

From a public policy perspective, the authors point out, labeling individuals who experience maltreatment but are not diagnosed with mental disorders as resilient may lead policymakers to withhold much needed resources to individuals who may be experiencing other long-term consequences of abuse.

The new study from Li’s lab, published in Development and Psychopathology, looked at the 20-year trajectory of depression from adolescence into adulthood of individuals with and without early experiences of maltreatment including physical abuse or neglect, emotional abuse, sexual abuse, and supervisory neglect. Depression levels were classified as low, increasing, or declining.

To determine if the youth that did not develop depression had impairment in other domains of their lives, the researchers measured fundamental adaptive systems (FAS) including social/interpersonal, substance use, physical health, and socioeconomic domains.

Around 75% of individuals with early childhood maltreatment fell into the low depression category, which by the field’s standards would be identified as resilient. But the rest of the results may suggest otherwise.

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