Clinical depression is a mental health problem that has become one of Australia’s pressing health issues. The Australian Bureau of Statistics documents over one million cases every year. Of these cases, the most common cause of depression is childhood trauma.
In Australia, childhood trauma mostly stems from childhood abuse (physical, sexual, or emotional); neglect; bullying; sibling abuse; domestic violence; divorce or separation; and substance abuse more than any other cause such as natural disasters, war, or community violence.
When deeply distressing situations and practices are repeated, these inflict psychological pain and stress on children who are usually emotionally ill equipped to handle these traumatic experiences. Most people with clinical depression have survived some sort of childhood trauma, of which child abuse carves a large part.
Childhood Trauma and the Brain
The human brain is one of the largest organs that develops rapidly beginning in utero and continuing a few years after birth. By three years of age, a toddler should have a brain size 90% close to the size of an adult’s brain. Brain development also happens in sequence, with the most basal functions developing first, growing to more complex systems responsible for cognitive, behavioural, and other equally sophisticated functions. As higher functions develop in early childhood, the neuronal structures and how the brain is organised are determined during these early years. According to research by Perry and Pollard in 1998, “An experience in adulthood may alter the function of the organised brain, whereas an experience in childhood determines the organisation of the brain – the brain adapts to the environment the child is being raised in.”
Positive childhood experiences create a better systematised brain with stronger psychological coping mechanisms to adversity. The individual grows into adulthood more impervious to mental health illnesses than a structurally compromised mind exposed to repeated psychological stress or trauma in its formative years.
Child Abuse and Depression
Child abuse comes in many forms and all have significant impact on brain development. How a brain develops has a huge impact on whether a person grows up to be an emotionally stable individual or one with coping disorders such as depression, anxiety, substance abuse, self-harm, and other negative behaviour.
The fallacious belief that children are emotionally and psychologically resilient is a dangerous concept as the obverse is true. Since children’s minds are developing, kids are particularly at their most psychologically vulnerable stage. The younger the child is, the more deleterious the effects of chronic stress and maltreatment are on his psychological makeup. As such, one may find abused or neglected children often antisocial, unable to form close relationships, possessing low inferiority complex, and other symptoms linked to clinical depression and anxiety disorder. Left untreated or rescued from their environment, these children survive psychologically damaged into adulthood with even more ingrained depression and other mental illnesses.
Brains of individuals with depression or substance abuse disorder show visual anomalies when subjected to brain imaging technology. Brain imaging tests done on subject teenagers who had developed depression and substance abuse disorder from being traumatised in childhood showed abnormalities in the amount of white matter that connects various areas of the brain. The brains of teenagers who had clinical depression or substance abuse issues displayed significantly lower amounts of white matter, a group of nerve fibre extensions of the neurons. As a consequence, areas that involves language processing, planning, emotional processing, and abstract thinking showed integrative problems.
This goes to show that clinical depression (including substance abuse, self-harm, and other mental problems and symptoms) is a true illness which an individual cannot simply snap out of without extensive psychiatric and medical help. Chronic trauma renders the brain debilitated and abnormally developed.
Depression and Community Awareness
Although there is a huge body of evidence that childhood trauma has a tenacious link to adolescent and adult depression, there are some people who manage to escape this tragedy. Genetic propensity toward depression and timing of childhood adversity are among the risk factors to consider. Depression however can be combated with good psychiatric treatment; but it could be a steep uphill climb for many.
For persistent community health and wellness, it is important then to safeguard the physical and mental well-being of its future tax-paying constituents…its children. If enough community citizens become highly aware of the repercussions a negative environment can impact children, perhaps the community may see less social problems and expense with depression, self abuse, suicide, and violence. Investment in sufficient mental care community services can have huge returns of psychologically sound individuals, able to contribute fully to the economic and social health of a nation.