Childhood Maltreatment and Stress Sensitization in Depression: Moderation by Age Group and Depression History
Larocque, Cherie Lee
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Major Depressive Disorder is a highly prevalent and recurrent psychological disorder, affecting approximately 12% of Canadians across their lifetime and 5% each year. Studies have shown that a history of childhood maltreatment increases risk for depression by conferring a vulnerability to the effects of stressful life events (i.e., stress sensitization). The goal of the current investigation was to examine whether the relation between childhood maltreatment and stress sensitization in depression is influenced by age group and depression history. This study also sought to investigate whether specific characteristics of the maltreatment experience differentially relate to stress sensitization. Two hundred and seven clinically depressed adolescents (i.e., 12 – 17 years; n = 59) and adults (i.e., 18 – 64 years; n = 148) participated in this study. Childhood accounts of maltreatment were assessed using the Childhood Experience of Care and Abuse Scale, and stressful life events experienced 3 months prior to depression onset were assessed using the Life Events and Difficulties Schedule. Results revealed that individuals with a history of severe maltreatment reported lower severity levels of stressful life events prior to depression onset than did those without such a history, but only among adolescents. Further, this relation was specific to independent stressors (i.e., those totally or nearly totally independent of the behaviour of the individual) and not dependent stressors (i.e., those at least partly due to the individual’s behaviour), and was specific to emotional abuse. Results also suggested that it is the experience of severe maltreatment, rather than particular aspects of it, that sensitizes individuals to the effects of stress. In summary, this study provides support for the relation of childhood maltreatment to stress sensitization in adolescents. Maltreated adolescents may be especially vulnerable to the depressogenic effects of stress, perhaps because their maltreatment experience is more proximal to depression onset. In contrast, other relevant processes (e.g., cognitive schema and neurobiological consolidation, chronic stress) may drive stress sensitization in adulthood; however, further research is required to investigate such mechanisms. Limitations and clinical implications are discussed.