Report: Early life stress is associated with youth-onset depression for some types of stress but not others

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Early life stress is associated with youth-onset depression for some types of stress but not others

Results support an association between eight different types of early life stress and the development of depression in youth

Washington, DC, July 15, 2020 – A study in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (JAACAP), published by Elsevier, reports that individuals exposed to early life stress (ELS) were more likely to develop a major depressive disorder (MDD) in childhood or adolescence than individuals who had not been exposed to ELS.

Examining the association between eight different types of ELS and youth-onset depression, the authors found that while some types of ELS (e.g., poverty) were not associated with MDD, other types of stress, including emotional abuse, were associated more strongly with MDD than a broader assessment of ELS.

“Researchers have documented that early life stress increases the risk for developing depression in adulthood. We wanted to know the degree to which it was associated with depression earlier in life–specifically during childhood or adolescence,” said lead author Joelle LeMoult, PhD, a researcher at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada. “Given that earlier onsets of depression often mean a more recurrent course across the lifespan. We found that exposure to early life stress more than doubled the likelihood someone will develop youth-onset depression.

“These findings indicate that there is a narrow window between adversity and depression during which we have the opportunity to intervene.”

The findings are based on a meta-analysis of data from 62 journal articles and over 44,000 unique participants. Studies that assessed early life stress and the presence or absence of MDD before the age of 18 years were also included.

Compared to youth who were not exposed to ELS, youth who were exposed to ELS were 2.5 times more likely to develop MDD (OR=2.50; 95% CI [2.08, 3.00]).

The authors also conducted eight additional meta-analyses to examine the association between different types of ELS and a diagnosis of MDD during childhood or adolescence. Sexual abuse, physical abuse, death of a family member, domestic violence, and emotional abuse were associated with significantly higher risk for youth-onset MDD; in contrast, poverty, illness/injury, and exposure to a natural disaster were not.

Several variables moderated the association between ELS and youth-onset MDD. For example, studies that used interview-based assessments or included larger sample sizes reported stronger associations between ELS and depression.

Taken together, findings provide evidence that the adverse effects of ELS on risk for MDD manifests early in development, before adulthood, and varies by type of ELS. Further, findings support recommendations to use best-practice methods in early life stress research.


Notes for editors

The article is “Meta-analysis: Exposure to Early Life Stress and Risk for Depression in Childhood and Adolescence” by Joelle LeMoult, PhD, Kathryn L. Humphreys, PhD, Alison Tracy, MA, Jennifer-Ashley Hoffmeister, BSc, Eunice Ip, BA, Ian H. Gotlib, PhD ( It currently appears on the JAACAP Articles In Press page and will appear in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, volume 59, issue 7 (July 2020), published by Elsevier.

Dr. LeMoult is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of British Columbia. She is the Director of the Depression, Anxiety, and Stress Laboratory, a Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research Scholar, and a registered clinical psychologist. The overarching goal of her research is to further our understanding of the onset, maintenance, and treatment of depressive and anxiety disorders in adolescents and adults. Using a multimodal approach, she examines the cognitive, emotional, and biological responses to environmental stressors that contribute to depression and anxiety.

Copies of this paper are available to credentialed journalists upon request; please contact the JAACAP Editorial Office at [email protected]”>[email protected] or +1 202 587 9674. Journalists wishing to interview the authors may contact Joelle LeMoult at [email protected]”>[email protected] or +1 778 938 3943.


Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (JAACAP) is the official publication of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. JAACAP is the leading journal focusing exclusively on today’s psychiatric research and treatment of the child and adolescent. Published twelve times per year, each issue is committed to its mission of advancing the science of pediatric mental health and promoting the care of youth and their families.

The Journal‘s purpose is to advance research, clinical practice, and theory in child and adolescent psychiatry. It is interested in manuscripts from diverse viewpoints, including genetic, epidemiological, neurobiological, cognitive, behavioral, psychodynamic, social, cultural, and economic. Studies of diagnostic reliability and validity, psychotherapeutic and psychopharmacological treatment efficacy, and mental health services effectiveness are encouraged. The Journal also seeks to promote the well-being of children and families by publishing scholarly papers on such subjects as health policy, legislation, advocacy, culture and society, and service provision as they pertain to the mental health of children and families.

About Elsevier

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Media contact

JAACAP Editorial Office

+1 202 587 9674

[email protected]”>[email protected]


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