Psychology graduate researches link between childhood trauma and impaired control over drinking

By

Robert Ewing

Editor’s note: This is part of a series of profiles for spring 2019 commencement.

Depression and anxiety disorders affect almost 20% of the American population, including 25% of children between 13 and 18 years old.

Emily Bobel, an undergraduate psychology major at Arizona State University, wanted to find out if depression could be a missing link connecting childhood trauma and problems with alcohol consumption.

Bobel’s senior honors research thesis, “The Exploration of Depression as a Mediating Mechanism Between Trauma and Alcohol Problems” looked at whether depression could explain why individuals who suffered childhood trauma experience impaired control over drinking and other negative drinking outcomes later in life. Because feelings of shame and self-concealment behaviors have been linked to impaired control and problem drinking, Bobel also looked at whether individuals who experienced childhood trauma have behaviors like heavy episodic drinking or other alcohol-related problems later in life. 

“We thought depression, which is an internalizing disorder, and impaired control could be an additional explanation for the relationship between childhood trauma and drinking behaviors,” Bobel said.

Childhood abuse comes in many forms and can include emotional, physical, sexual, verbal, financial or cultural abuse. According to ChildHelp, a Phoenix-based nonprofit dedicated to helping victims of child abuse and neglect, over 6.6 million children are referred to state child protective services each year, and a report of child abuse is made every 10 seconds.

Bobel’s thesis research showed emotional abuse was strongly related to depression and negative drinking behaviors.

“Emotional abuse was more strongly related to depression and impaired control than any of the other kinds of childhood trauma in our college student sample,” she said.

Related: ASU researchers identify role for inflammatory marker in cognitive decline tied to child abuse

For her senior thesis, Bobel worked in ASU’s Social Addictions Impulse Lab (SAIL) with lab director Julie Patock-Peckham, a research assistant professor in the Department of Psychology and Barrett Honors Faculty. Research in the SAIL Lab seeks to understand the root causes of addiction in adulthood, including from internal sources like anxiety or depression or external sources like a personality disorder.

“Emily is a talented writer and presenter, and we depend on her a lot in the SAIL lab,” Patock-Peckham said. “Everyone in the SAIL lab is very proud of her and all that she has accomplished in the last year.”

We asked Bobel the following questions about her time at ASU:

Question: What made you interested in psychology?

A: I’ve always been interested in helping people and finding out why they end up in their current situations. I feel like psychology does both of these things very well. It’s been very interesting for me to study how something that happens to you so early on in life can affect your behavior so many years later, and sometimes not for the best. 

Q: What made you choose ASU?

A: I chose to attend ASU because the weather here is much nicer than it is in Michigan, where I’m from. I was also accepted into Barrett, The Honors College and wanted to take advantage of all the opportunities Barrett had to offer. 

Q: What was your favorite part of campus?

A: My favorite part of campus is the balcony on the student services building. You can barely see it when you walk past from the ground, so people don’t utilize the space a lot. Whenever I go up there to study it’s basically empty, so you can study with a view and little to no distractions! 

Q: What was your favorite class?

A: My favorite class was an Inside Out Prison Exchange honors course called Men and Feminism. It was a discussion-based course that consisted of eight Barrett students and 10 men from the Maricopa Reentry Center. I have never felt more connected to a group of people or learned so much about a topic that is so important in our society in such a short period of time. 

Q: What is the best advice you can give an undergraduate at ASU?

A: The best advice I can give to an ASU undergraduate is to get involved as soon as possible and take advantage of all of the resources ASU has to offer. I also would encourage them to take classes in a bunch of different subject areas to see if there is something that interests them that they wouldn’t have thought of otherwise. The privilege of education is one that should never be taken for granted. 

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I plan to take some time to determine what my greatest interests are and how I can turn them into a career that satisfies my desire to help others. I will most likely pursue a graduate degree in clinical psychology and focus my research on correctional psychology. 

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem, what would you tackle?

A: If someone gave me $40 million dollars, I would try to determine the most effective methods to reduce recidivism rates in the U.S. I would love the opportunity to travel to other countries with more effective prison systems and determine if we could implement their practices here in the U.S. I would also want to address mental health care for prisoners, as I feel that getting treatment can be an effective way to help people leave a criminal lifestyle in their past.