Impact of Child Abuse Differs by Gender

Liam Davenport

March 31, 2023

PARIS — Childhood trauma affects women and men equally in terms of its impact on subsequent psychopathology, but trauma type has subsequent differential effects depending on gender, new research shows.

Investigators found childhood emotional and sexual abuse had a greater effect on women than men, whereas men were more adversely affected by emotional and physical neglect.

"Our findings indicate that exposure to childhood maltreatment increases the risk of having psychiatric symptoms in both men and women," lead researcher Thanavadee Prachason, PhD, Department of Psychiatry and Neuropsychology, Maastricht University Medical Center, Maastricht, the Netherlands, said in a press release.

"Exposure to emotionally or sexually abusive experiences during childhood increases the risk of a variety of psychiatric symptoms, particularly in women. In contrast, a history of emotional or physical neglect in childhood increases the risk of having psychiatric symptoms more in men," Prachason added.

The findings were presented here at the European Psychiatric Association (EPA) 2023 Congress.

A Leading Mental Illness Risk Factor

Study presenter Laura Fusar-Poli, MD, PhD, from the Department of Brain and Behavioral Sciences, University of Pavia, Pavia, Italy, said that the differential impact of trauma subtypes in men and women indicate that both gender and the type of childhood adversity experienced need to be taken into account in future studies.

Fusar-Poli began by highlighting that 13%-36% of individuals have experienced some kind of childhood trauma, with 30% of sufferers exposed to at least two types of trauma.

Trauma has been identified as a risk factor for a range of mental health problems.

"It is estimated that, worldwide, around one third of all psychiatric disorders are related to childhood trauma," senior researcher Sinan Gülöksüz, MD, PhD, also from Maastricht University MC, said in the release.

Consequently, "childhood trauma is a leading preventable risk factor for mental illness," he added.

Previous research suggests the subtype of trauma has an impact on subsequent biological changes and clinical outcomes, and that there are gender differences in the effects of childhood trauma.

To investigate, the researchers examined data from TwinssCan, a Belgian cohort of twins and siblings aged 15-35 years without a diagnosis of pervasive mental disorders.

The study included 477 females and 314 males who had completed the Childhood Trauma Questionnaire–Short Form (CTQ) and the Symptom Checklist-90 SR (SCL-90) to determine exposure to childhood adversity and levels of psychopathology, respectively.

Results showed that total CTQ scores were significantly associated with total SCL-90 scores in both men and women, as well as with each of the nine symptom domains of the SCL-90 (P < .001 for all assessments). These included psychoticism, paranoid ideation, anxiety, depression, somatization, obsessive-compulsive, interpersonal sensitivity, hostility, and phobic anxiety.

There were no significant differences in the associations with total CTQ scores between men and women.

However, when the researchers examined trauma subtypes and psychopathology, clear gender differences emerged.

Investigators found a significant association between emotional abuse on the CTQ and total SCL-90 scores in both men (P < .023) and women (P < .001), but that the association was significantly stronger in women (P = .043).

Sexual abuse was significantly associated with total SCL-90 scores in women (P < .001), while emotional neglect and physical neglect were significantly associated with psychopathology scores in men (P = .026 and P < .001, respectively).

"Physical neglect may include experiences of not having enough to eat, wearing dirty clothes, not being taken care of, and not getting taken to the doctor when the person was growing up," said Prachason.

"Emotional neglect may include childhood experiences like not feeling loved or important, and not feeling close to the family."

In women, emotional abuse was significantly associated with all nine symptom domains of the SCL-90, while sexual abuse was associated with seven: psychoticism, paranoid ideation, anxiety, depression, somatization, obsessive-compulsive, and hostility.

Physical neglect, in men, was significantly associated with eight of the symptom domains (all but somatization), but emotional neglect was linked only to depression, Fusar-Poli reported.

"This study showed a very important consequence of childhood trauma, and not only in people with mental disorders. I would like to underline that this is a general population, composed of adolescents and young adults, which is the age in which the majority of mental disorders starts, Fusar-Poli told Medscape Medical News.

She emphasized that psychotic disorders are only a part of the "broad range" of conditions that may be related to childhood trauma, which "can have an impact on sub-threshold symptoms that can affect functioning and quality of life in the general population."

Addressing the differential findings in men and women, Gülöksüz noted women may be more "vulnerable to childhood trauma than men" simply because "they are exposed to more sexual and emotional abuse."

However, he said, this is "something that we really need understand," as there is likely an underlying mechanism, "and not only a biological mechanism but probably a societal one."

Gülöksüz noted there could also be differences between societies in terms of the impact of childhood trauma. "Our sample was from Belgium, but what would happen if we conducted this study in Italy, or in India," he said.

Compromised Cognitive, Emotional Function

Commenting on the findings for Medscape Medical News, Elaine F. Walker, PhD, professor of psychology and neuroscience at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, said stress exposure in general, including childhood trauma, "has transdiagnostic effects on vulnerability to mental disorders."

"The effects are primarily mediated by the hypothalamic pituitary adrenal axis, which triggers the release of cortisol. When persistently elevated, this can result in neurobiological processes that have adverse effects on brain structure and circuitry which, in turn, compromises cognitive and emotional functioning," said Walker, who was not associated with the study.

She noted that "while it is possible that there are sex differences in biological sensitivity to certain subtypes of childhood trauma, it may also be the case that sex differences in the likelihood of exposure to trauma subtypes is actually the key factor."

"At the present time, there are not specific treatment protocols aimed at addressing childhood trauma subtypes, but most experienced therapists will incorporate information about the individual’s trauma history in their treatment," Walker added.

Also commenting on the research, Philip Gorwood, MD, PhD, head of the Clinique des Maladies Mentales et de l'Encéphale at Centre Hospitalier Sainte Anne in Paris, said the results are "important…as childhood trauma has been clearly recognized as a major risk factor for the vast majority of psychiatric disorders, but with poor knowledge of gender specificities."

"Understanding which aspects of trauma are more damaging according to gender will facilitate research on the resilience process. Many intervention strategies will indeed benefit from a more personalized approach," he said in a statement. Gorwood was not involved with this study.

The study authors, Gorwood, and Walker report no relevant financial relationships.

European Psychiatric Association (EPA) 2023 Congress: Abstract O0049. Presented March 27, 2023.

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