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Difficult Childhood Increases Psychosis in Women at Risk for Depression

Children who experience difficulties in childhood are at increased risk for various negative mental health outcomes. Two of these outcomes, depression and psychosis, have been linked to adversity in childhood. Sexual abuse [1], physical abuse [2], maltreatment, and neglect experienced during childhood are some of the traumas that have been shown to increase a woman’s risk for both psychotic symptoms and depressive symptoms later in life. However, little attention has been given to how genetic risk for depression influences the development of psychosis in women who have dealt with significant childhood adversities. To address this issue specifically, I.M.A. Kramer of Geestelijke Gezondheidszorg Eindhoven en De Kempen mental health institute in the Netherlands led a study examining how genetic risk for depression affected a woman’s risk for psychosis resulting from childhood trauma [3] or adversity. Kramer evaluated 508 female twins for psychotic traits, stress sensitivity, negative affect, and childhood adversity.

The results indicated that the women who had a family history of depression were more likely to develop symptoms of psychosis than those who did not, even though both groups of women experienced difficult childhoods. However, increased sensitivity to stress did not elevate the risk for psychosis. Kramer believes that the experience of depressive symptoms, or the genetic risk for depression, impairs emotional regulation, thus causing women to use maladaptive coping strategies to manage childhood traumas. These strategies then make these women more susceptible to moderate to extreme symptoms of psychosis than women who have healthy emotional regulation. Because the women with a family history of depression did exhibit more symptoms of psychosis at follow-up, the results suggest an underlying common genetic link between psychosis and depression [4]. The findings from this study support previous research that shows women at risk for depression, who have suffered with childhood abuse or maltreatment, may be vulnerable to psychosis. Kramer summed up the results by adding, “Genetic liability for depression may potentiate the pathway from childhood adversity to psychotic-like symptoms through dysfunctional emotional processing of anomalous experiences associated with childhood trauma.”

Kramer, I.M.A., Simons, C.J.P., Myin-Germeys, I., Jacobs, N., Derom, C., Thiery, E., Van Os, J., Wichers, M. (2012.) Evidence That Genes for Depression Impact on the Pathway from Trauma to Psychotic-like Symptoms by Occasioning Emotional Dysregulation.Psychological Medicine 42.2, 283-294. Print.