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Childhood trauma

One of our talented researchers is Anne-Laura van Harmelen. As Professor of Brain, Safety and Resilience, she studies distressing childhood experiences, such as abuse, bullying or trauma.

‘These kinds of experience are strong predictors of depression, anxiety disorders, criminality and suicide,’ says Van Harmelen. She and her team study what it takes to become resilient after experiencing childhood trauma. ‘Societal change, such as Covid and the war in Ukraine are also having an effect on social structures. They affect how people feel and consequently how resilient they are.’

Wealth of knowledge at Leiden University

Van Harmelen deliberately chose Leiden. ‘There is a strong research focus on major childhood trauma and a wealth of knowledge about how childhood trauma is passed on from generation to generation. Social resilience and safety also have a very clear priority. Leiden’s research programme on Social Resilience and Safety, where we work together on major societal issues on this theme, is clear evidence of this,’ she says. 

Break the mental health taboo

Van Harmelen’s research goals are twofold. First, she hopes that talking about the effects of childhood trauma will break the taboo surrounding these terrible experiences and the mental health problems that can ensue. Most young people who need help do not get it – or get it too late. ‘Suicide is one of the leading causes of death in young people,’ she explains. ‘While suicide is very treatable. I hope our research will make it easier for young people to ask for help.’

The second desired outcome of the research project is to give hope. Distressing childhood experiences affect how your brain responds to stress, and that can cause mental health problems. But that is not the whole story. ‘Our research also shows that childhood trauma does not scar you for life; there are many different things that can help you get back on your feet again,’ says Van Harmelen. By discovering these factors, she hopes her research will help increase resilience in young people with traumatic childhood experiences.

Different factors important

The challenge? There are many different layers that are important for strengthening resilience – from genetic influences, hormones and the brain to households and social cohesion. This makes it essential to work with other experts. ‘It’s quite complex because everyone speaks their own “scientific language”, so I have to immerse myself in theories and approaches from a whole bunch of different research areas,’ Van Harmelen explains. ‘My field of work – social resilience and safety – lives and breathes social change, so the research is dynamic and never finished.’

Want to contribute to pioneering research? Become a LUF donor and make your donation online iDeal or by credit card, or go to www.LUF.en/contribute for other ways of donating.

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Talent alone is not enough. Today, when the world so urgently needs smart, sustainable answers, it is important to give researchers the opportunity to do their work. Leiden has the necessary talent and knowledge to help with finding structural solutions, but without financial support many research projects will not go ahead and questions will remain unanswered. The Leiden University Fund is therefore asking everyone who cares about our University to make the difference together. For today’s talented scholars, so that they can contribute to tomorrow’s world!

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