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How Abuse Causes Depression

author image Jeffrey Traister
Jeffrey Traister is a writer and filmmaker. For more than 25 years, he has covered nutrition and medicine for health-care companies and publishers, also producing digital video for websites, DVDs and commercials. Trained in digital filmmaking at The New School, Traister also holds a Master of Science in human nutrition and medicine from the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons.
How Abuse Causes Depression
A little girl holds her face as she cries with her stuffed toy on the ground. Photo Credit: monkeybusinessimages/iStock/Getty Images

Emotional, physical and/or sexual abuse in childhood commonly causes adult depression, according to an article published in "Psychology Today" in 2003. Many adults can go years with depression without understanding the underlying causes. Recovering from depression requires the effort to identify the symptoms and their sources, and to change thoughts and behaviors, and alter brain structure and chemistry.

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The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimates that 1.25 million children experienced abuse in 2005 and 2006, of which 27 percent suffered emotional abuse, 58 percent physical abuse and 24 percent sexual abuse. The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that among adults ages 18 and older, approximately 15 million have major depression and 3 million have chronic mild depression. The onset for depression for most people begins after age 30, and it affects a higher percentage of women than men. People with a history of emotional and physical abuse have an earlier age at onset of depression and a longer duration of illness, according to a study published in the "Journal of Psychiatric Research" in 2010.


Each type of child abuse has unique characteristics, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Emotional abuse occurs when a child is subjected to close confinement, threats of terror, and verbal assaults such as belittling, rejecting and being made a scapegoat. Physical abuse involves being purposefully hit, punched, kicked, dropped or dragged. Sexual abuse includes genital molestation, exposure or voyeurism, intrusion, prostitution or involvement in pornography.


The signs of abuse vary by child and type of abuse, according to Prevent Child Abuse America. Extreme passivity or aggression, and lack of attachment to a parent are common signs of emotional abuse. A child who has unexplained marks and bruises on her face or body and is fearful of the perpetrator expresses signs of physical abuse. A child who has difficulty walking or sitting, unusual expertise about sex, or runs away from home may be suffering sexual abuse.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, depression can interfere with the ability to pursue daily activities to eat, work, play and sleep. The common signs of depression are feelings of prolonged sadness, worthlessness, fatigue, insomnia, loss of interest in pleasurable activities, and thoughts of suicide.

Biological Effects

Adults who experienced abuse in childhood are sensitive to stress and have a cascade of biological effects that cause depression. According to research published in "Biological Psychiatry" in 2009, emotional abuse in childhood significantly diminishes response to cortisol, and this effect increases with age. Cortisol is a hormone released during stress that when chronically elevated, can reduce available levels of a chemical messenger in the brain called serotonin that can cause depression.


The trauma from abuse can last a lifetime. Early identification and treatment of abuse and depression can reduce the long term impact. Mental health professionals can help recovery.

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