Despite living in strong and supportive families for over 20 years, many children exposed to severe early deprivation in Romanian institutions aged 0-3 experience a range of mental health problems in early adulthood, according to new King’s College London research.
Experiencing severe deprivation and neglect in childhood can have a lasting psychological impact into early adulthood, finds the unique study, which has followed the mental health of a group of children adopted from Romanian institutions to UK families in the 1990s.
Published in The Lancet, this is the first large-scale study to follow a group of children who were subjected to extreme deprivation into adulthood, tracking how their mental health and cognition has developed as a result.
Being exposed to very severe conditions in childhood can be associated with lasting and deep-seated social, emotional and cognitive problems, which are complex and vary over time.
This highlights the importance of assessing patients from deprived backgrounds when providing mental health support and carefully planning care when these patients transfer from child to adult mental health care. Although focussed on children adopted from Romanian institutions in the early 1990s, our findings may also be relevant to large numbers of children who are still exposed to abusive or neglectful conditions around the world.
Professor Edmund Sonuga-Barke from King’s College London
The English and Romanian Adoptees study began shortly after the fall of the communist regime in Romania. Children living in institutions were subjected to extremely poor hygiene, insufficient food, little personalised care and no social or cognitive stimulation. The study, running since 1990, analyses the mental health of 165 children who spent time in Romanian institutions and who were adopted by families in the UK between the ages of two weeks and 43 months. In the UK, they joined socioeconomically advantaged, stable, caring and supportive families.
Comparing against 52 children adopted within the UK, the study has followed them throughout their childhood using questionnaires, IQ tests and interviews with the children and their parents to analyse social, emotional and cognitive outcomes at ages 6, 11 and 15.
The latest part of the study followed the adoptees to ages 22 to 25 years old. It includes around three-quarters of the original adoptees – 39 UK adoptees, 50 Romanian adoptees who had spent less than six months in an institution as children and 72 who had spent over six months.
The researchers found that the amount of time spent in a Romanian institution was an important marker of children’s future mental health. Romanian adoptees who had spent less than six months had similar rates of mental health symptoms as UK adoptees. However, adoptees who had spent more time in the institutions had higher rates of social, emotional and cognitive problems throughout their lives.
Read the full story on the King’s website.