Social Support Systems Help Abused Children

A stable environment protects against depression, study says

MONDAY, Nov. 15, 2004 (HealthDayNews) -- Children with a history of abuse as well as a gene that makes them more vulnerable to depression can still lead happy lives if they get the right kind of social support, a study finds.

The findings are "new, exciting and encouraging," said Joan Kaufman, an associate professor of psychiatry at the Yale University School of Medicine, and lead author of the report that appears in this week's issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The most important factor in preventing those children from slumping into a lifetime of depression is "intervention for a stable, positive attachment," Kaufman said. In practical terms, that means "what we want is to keep those children from going to one foster home to another continually."

In the study, Kaufman and her colleagues used accepted diagnostic methods to assess the incidence of depression in 57 children who were removed from their parents' care by the state of Connecticut because of allegations of abuse and/or neglect. The researchers then compared the children to 44 children from stable homes with no indication of maltreatment.

The researchers also tested the children for the presence of a variant of a gene, designated 5-HTTLPR, that has been associated with the occurrence of depression, but only in individuals under stress. About 40 percent of the children in both groups were found to carry that gene.

Predictably, more of the abused children had symptoms of depression -- 22.8 percent, compared to 4.5 percent of children from stable homes. But the occurrence of depression wasn't related to the presence of the 5-HTTLPR gene in the abused children who had a relatively stable lifestyle, meaning they had frequent contact with the adults supervising them. Depression was higher in abused children who had such contact only twice a year, or even less frequently.

"Early abuse is not linked to depression," Kaufman said. "It is influenced by genetics, but even with a genetic disposition and abuse, proper intervention can prevent it."

For the institutions that take charge of these children, the message is that what's needed are "interventions for a stable, positive attachment," Kaufman said. Since the study shows positive results for that strategy, "in some ways it is a message of hope," she said.

But for most abused children in the system she studied, "that has not been accomplished," Kaufman said. "We have been following these children, and we see one of every five being moved from one home to another within a year."

More information

The National Clearinghouse on Child Abuse and Neglect Information has more on preventing child abuse.

SOURCES: Joan Kaufman, Ph.D, associate professor, psychiatry, Yale University School of Medicine, New Haven, Conn.; Nov. 15-19, 2004, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
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