Anaclitic depression stems from being separated from a caregiver or loved one. It’s linked with abandonment and dependency issues.

Each child forms strong attachments with their caregivers during infancy and childhood. This helps them develop trust, feel secure, and feel cared for.

Temporary or long-term separation from a caregiver can lead to feelings of mistrust, anxiety, and fear. It can also lead to a type of depression called anaclitic depression.

The condition can affect adults, though it most often affects infants or young children who experience time apart from their caregiver, specifically their mother.

Anaclitic depression was first termed by the psychoanalyst René Spitz in 1945.

Spitz observed depressive symptoms — like distress and withdrawnness — in institutionalized children and attributed this to the lack of a mother’s caregiving.

He introduced the term “hospitalism” to describe the deterioration and sometimes death in children who were away from their mothers for too long.

Spitz did a longitudinal study with 123 infants in a nursery where he noted halted development in those who were away from a loving mother figure. He also found that some of the children often cried and refused to engage with their surroundings.

Psychologist Sidney Blatt later expanded Spitz’s work. He introduced what he called the “two configurations approach” after noticing how two of his cases had vastly different presentations of depression.

Blatt’s two configurations of depression were:

  • the introjective (self-critical) experience of depression
  • the anaclitic (dependent) experiences of depression

Anaclitic individuals feel unloved and like nobody cares about them. Meanwhile, introjective individuals are more concerned with feelings of failure and heavily criticize themselves.

Anaclitic depression is not a formal diagnosis recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition, text revision (DSM-5-TR).

Still, the theory can help you understand why early-life attachment styles are important for your mental well-being and how childhood experiences can affect depressive symptoms and relationships later in life.

Anaclitic depression generally causes great distress in personal relationships.

Symptoms in adults

If you have anaclitic depression as an adult, you may have the following symptoms:

In adults, symptoms of anaclitic depression typically present as dependent personality traits.

For instance, adults with this type of depression may mistrust others, have difficulties with intimacy, and fear being abandoned so much that they become emotionally dysregulated when away from someone they rely on.

Symptoms in babies

Spitz’s work addresses how anaclitic depression can present in infants, often as a result of distress caused by being away from a caregiver:

  • stunted development
  • refusal to engage with the environment
  • crying
  • weight loss

Generally, anaclitic depression is characterized by dependency on others and intense anxiety when you’re not feeling physically or emotionally cared for.

Causes of anaclitic depression include being separated from a maternal caregiver as an infant.

Other causes can include social isolation or being away from loved ones. For instance, if you’re in a long-distance relationship with a romantic partner or if you don’t have much or any contact with friends or family.

Treatment for anaclitic depression often involves therapy.

Specifically, 2017 research suggests that people with this condition will likely benefit from the attachments formed through the therapeutic relationship.

Further, those with more dependent functioning can benefit from mentalization techniques and learning self-regulation concepts.

In infants, symptoms are likely to resolve if they return to having the support of a caregiver. However, this isn’t always a possibility.

If you have signs of anaclitic depression, you may consider seeking the help of a mental health professional.

Anaclitic depression is a theory of depressive symptomatology first introduced in the 1940s. While it isn’t a formal mental health disorder defined in the DSM-5-TR, it has been widely studied.

The theory is that infants separated from their caregivers show signs of depression. It’s also seen in adults, presenting with symptoms like anxiety and an overwhelming fear of abandonment.

Anaclitic depression can be treated in psychotherapy, meaning that it’s possible to learn how to form healthier attachments with others. Thus, if you have anaclitic depression, you may consider finding a therapist.

For more information about anaclitic depression, it can be worth reading the book “Experiences of Depression: Theoretical, Clinical, and Research Perspectives” by Sidney J. Blatt.

Attachment styles can change over time, and though fears of abandonment can be overwhelming, many people can learn ways to cope with attachment disruptions.