What is it about?

Experiences of maltreatment during childhood are a central risk factor for depression. Therefore, they are often assessed for research and clinical practice. Unfortunately, depression is usually accompanied by a negative worldview. Thus, sufferers of depression find it difficult to imagine that their future will develop favorably, or that they themselves are valuable. Memory distortions are also described, with those affected by depression reporting primarily painful memories. This might call into question the accuracy of statements about experiences of abuse in childhood. In two independent cohorts of depressed patients and healthy controls, experiences of childhood maltreatment were assessed twice, two years apart, using the validated Childhood Trauma Questionnaire (CTQ). Reports on childhood maltreatment severity remained stable in depressed and healthy participants in both cohorts. Change in affective state - for example, recovery from depression within two years - made little difference in accuracy. Data of emotional abuse and neglect, as opposed to sexual or physical abuse, were most likely to be influenced by depressive symptoms. Therefore, clinicians and researchers should exercise caution in using only this subscale of the CTQ screening tool. Finally, dividing subjects into "maltreated" and "not maltreated" proved to be of little use as this lead to lower consistency of reports. Such an approach does not seem to adequately capture the complex individual differences in experiences of maltreatment. In summary, the CTQ is a temporally stable instrument for assessing childhood maltreatment experiences in adults that is not susceptible to changes in depressive symptomatology. The evidence against depressive recall bias combined with its high practicality encourages researchers and clinicians to use validated retrospective self-report instruments to assess childhood maltreatment experiences.

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Why is it important?

Although there was little evidence of depressive recall bias, it could still be argued that participants who suffered from depression at both time points nonetheless recalled their past more negatively - just equally pessimistically at both time points. Thus, a particular strength of the current study is the inclusion of a sample of participants who suffered a first depressive episode between the two measurement time points. Data from this sample suggest that adults who have never experienced a clinically relevant depressive episode do not report their childhood experiences differently when they have experienced a first depressive episode. Overall, the results suggest that reporting bias due to depressive symptomatology is negligible. The results of this study are of great importance to clinicians and researchers because they show that the CTQ screening tool can be used with currently depressed patients. And for clinical practice, they underscore that there is no reason to generally distrust depressed patients' accounts of maltreatment experiences.

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This page is a summary of: Temporal stability and state-dependence of retrospective self-reports of childhood maltreatment in healthy and depressed adults., Psychological Assessment, November 2022, American Psychological Association (APA), DOI: 10.1037/pas0001175.
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