Psychopathology And Early Deprivation: Is There A Relationship?

One of the great purposes of psychology in the experimental field is to discover the origin of psychopathology, that is, of psychological disorders. It seems like an endless goal, since not only genes determine the appearance of a disorder. The environment also plays an essential role in the development of the individual, and it is its combination, that is, the phenotype, that explains the appearance of a psychopathological disorder or its non-expression. Some relevant aspects of the environment that can influence the phenotype are education, family habits or, as presented in this article, early deprivation.

One of the keys that has been investigated in relation to the appearance of psychopathology is early deprivation. Deprivation refers to precariousness, lack of care, stimulation or hunger at an early age of development.

Numerous articles have highlighted the relationship between these two constructs, through longitudinal studies and investigating concepts such as resilience. In one of those investigations, presented by Sonuga et al. In 2017, the phenomenon of the mass adoption of Romanian children by British families during the fall of the dictator Nicolae Ceausescu was investigated.

In this longitudinal study —assessing children from adoption to young adults— early deprivation suffered by Romanian children in overcrowded orphanages was defined as: lack of cognitive and social stimulation, hunger, lack of personalized care individual and very little hygiene.

The Romanian context was bleak. The dictator had tried to pay the debt that the country accumulated for its rapid industrialization by exporting all agricultural production, giving rise to a nation that, after a civil war, was starving. Therefore, the deprivation suffered in the orphanages during the fall of the dictator was great.

Research groups

The research consisted of three groups of children: two groups made up of Romanian children who had suffered deprivation in orphanages and who had been adopted by British families at different times.

Children in the first group had been deprived for less than six months, children in the second group had suffered deprivation for more than six months before being adopted. There was a third control group composed of adopted children who had not suffered deprivation; in this case they were British orphans adopted by also English families.

The study consisted of evaluating the children of the three groups at the ages of six, eleven and fifteen years. An assessment when adolescents became young adults was also included later to measure the emotional management of such a difficult age change.

Measured psychopathological symptoms

The psychopathological features or disorders that were measured in the study were:

  • Disinhibited social relationship disorder .
  • Autism spectrum disorder (specifically, communication problems and obsessions).
  • Inattention and hyperactivity.
  • Cognitive impairment
  • Emotional problems and behavior problems (measured from adolescence).

Results, is early deprivation relevant?

After these Romanian adopted children grew up and were evaluated at different ages or phases of the study, it was observed how the three initial hypotheses found empirical support :

  • The control group and the least deprived group presented similar levels of psychopathological symptoms at all ages.
  • The group with the greatest deprivation presents psychopathological symptoms despite having had the necessary care after being adopted.
  • The emotional problems measured in adolescence and young adulthood increased more in the group with greater deprivation.

In addition, a greater number of children with several different psychopathological symptoms were observed in the group with greater deprivation. 34% of the children in this group presented at least some symptoms at all ages, a percentage that decreased when they became young adults.

In this period, only 25% of the young people in the group with the most deprivation presented a psychopathological trait. The psychopathologies that most affected the most deprived group, compared to the other two groups, were symptoms related to autism spectrum disorder, disinhibited social relationship disorder, and inattention and hyperactivity.

Other interesting facts concern the lifestyles of young adults in all three groups. It was how the young people who had suffered most deprived in childhood came less far in their education and had a higher unemployment rate. Furthermore, young people in the same group made greater use of mental health services —psychologists and psychiatrists— during all the ages measured. Finally, also in the most deprived group, there were three individuals with borderline personality disorder, two with bipolar disorder and another two with psychosis.

Future approaches derived from this research

The results of this study evidenced the existence of a relationship between early deprivation in the initial stages of development and psychopathological symptoms, at least those evaluated here. What is interesting, however, is not limited to having found this relationship, but also has to do with what can be done in the form of intervention.

There was a small percentage of children in the most deprived group — specifically 15 individuals — who did not present any disorder at any of the ages evaluated. This puts the spotlight on genetic, epigenetic and resilience studies that can explain why, although they suffered deprivation, they did not develop disorders like the others. Knowing this can elucidate what strategies to put in place so that, despite a past starring famine, a child can develop properly.

Regarding the cognitive impairment evaluated, it was observed how this seemed to balance with age in the three groups, which precipitates an interest in studies about the neuroplasticity of children and how the brain compensates for the substitutions of their owners.

The results of emotional problems, which became very noticeable in adolescence, could also be related to a latent vulnerability related to stress suffered as children.

The fields of study that stem from this research look promising. However, a measure that can already be implemented based on the results previously presented is to provide children with early deprivation with a continuous and quality psychological service once they have been adopted, paying special attention to the disorders that were most diagnosed in the most deprived group, focusing therapy on the difficulties that may be related to these.