Understanding risk and building mental health resilience after childhood psychological trauma: focus on the subjective experience.

Psychological Trauma: Understanding risk, building resilience PhD Scholarship 2021 - King's College London


Supervisors: Professor Andrea Danese and Dr Kelly Rose-Clarke


Lay Summary:

Childhood trauma is a key modifiable risk factor for mental health difficulties throughout the life-course. It is, therefore, essential to understand how childhood trauma brings about mental health difficulties and how to prevent or minimise this detrimental effect. Recent research has shown that, like for traumatic experiences later in life, risk of mental health difficulties is linked more closely to the subjective experience of traumatised children than their documented exposure: adult participants in long-term longitudinal studies who retrospectively recall childhood trauma are at elevated risk of mental health difficulties regardless of whether there was contemporary evidence of their traumatic experiences during assessments in childhood years; in contrast, children with documented traumatic experiences are at elevated risk of mental health difficulties only when they recall trauma in adulthood. The proposed research project aims to understand why mental health difficulties emerges as a function of subjective rather than objective experience of childhood trauma. We will capitalise on two rare cohort studies that have followed children from birth into adult life and have measured both documented experience of trauma in childhood years and adult recall of childhood experiences. From the rich datasets and notes, we will identify factors that differentiate participants who do or do not recall childhood trauma in the context of documented childhood experiences, for example investigating their personality, personal relationships, and attitudes about themselves and others. The factors identified will point to potential targets for the development of new psychological interventions to prevent or minimise mental health difficulties associated with childhood trauma.  




The Mental Health Research UK Studentship project will investigate the determinants of psychopathology uniquely associated with the subjective experience of childhood trauma. In particular, the student will test why some participants without prospective measures of childhood trauma retrospectively report it, and why some participants with prospective measures of childhood trauma do not retrospectively report it. The identified factors will help characterise the mechanisms of risk and resilience to psychopathology underlying the associations described in our previous epidemiological work (Reuben, 2016, J Child Psychol Psychiatry; Newbury, 2018, J Psychiatry Res; Danese & Widom, Nat Human Behav, in press). In turn, better understanding of these mechanisms will inform subsequent psychological intervention development.

Hi, my name is Oonagh and I have just started my PhD at the Social, Genetic and Developmental Psychiatry Centre at King’s College London with Professor Andrea Danese and Dr Kelly Rose-Clarke. The project aims to understand the sources of disagreement between prospective and retrospective measures of childhood maltreatment, and why mental health difficulties are associated with subjective rather than objective experiences of childhood trauma.


As an undergraduate, I studied History of Art at the University of Cambridge, before beginning a Psychological Science MSc Conversion course at University College London. My master’s thesis focused on anxiety in autism and its relationship to sensory sensitivities, sparking my interest in mental health research. I am particularly excited to explore the relationship between trauma, memory and psychopathology, and the resilience mechanisms that protect individuals from developing psychopathology in the aftermath of traumatic experiences. I am looking forward to developing my research skills in both qualitative and quantitative methods and am incredibly excited to be part of a project that aims to inform the development of more effective psychological interventions. 


I am extremely appreciative to Mental Health Research UK for this opportunity and really look forward to working with Professor Andrea and Dr Kelly Rose-Clarke."