Yesterday the Journal of Affective Disorders published a study comparing the rates of life events and life stressors (moving to a new city, family financial difficulties, frequent family fights, etc) between depressed children and non-depressed peers. I feel a bit self-conscious reviewing this particular study since I’m one of the lead authors, but it is highly relevant to the discussion we had regarding brain changes in the offspring of parents and grandparents who have a history of child depression (see this post). The goal of the study was to identify which types of events are most associated with child depression, and whether the association between stressors and depression is the same throughout childhood (for example are younger children affected more by these events than older children?). The study included more than 600 clinically depressed children and an even larger number of non-depressed peers living in Hungary. Thus it is one of the largest clinical samples of depressed children ever examined. As we would expect, depressed children experienced significantly more life events than non-depressed children. But we were really surprised at the speed that depressed children accumulated these life events. That is, usually we accumulate life events gradually throughout or lives. The longer we live the more likely we are to experience a family move, a death in the family, an illness, etc. Thus, we experience a fairly steady increase of life events with age. However, children and adolescents who developed depression do not show this pattern. Instead, by age 7 these children have accumulated more life events than non-depressed 17 year old adolescents! Is it simply that these kids are depressed in reaction to these stressors? It’s possible, but we are currently replicating these findings with children at familial risk for depression but who are not depressed yet. This tells us that the accumulation of stressful life events can occur many years prior to the onset of depression (since most these kids who will develop depression will do so during adolescence). There are some important implications of these findings, especially in regards to the common perception of ‘resiliency’ during childhood – the common idea that children can withstand a lot of stress without being significantly impacted. It is possible that children are often resilient to specific life events, but our findings suggest that it is the accumulation of many of these events at an early age that may place them at risk for developing depression. Thus, we hope to eventually examine if preventive strategies for young children experiencing high rates of stressful life events will decrease the risk that these children will develop depression.

Mayer, L., Lopez-Duran, N., Kovacs, M., George, C., Baji, I., Kapornai, K., Kiss, E., & Vetró, A. (2009). Stressful life events in a clinical sample of depressed children in Hungary Journal of Affective Disorders, 115 (1-2), 207-214 DOI: 10.1016/j.jad.2008.08.018

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