Schizophrenia three times more likely after childhood trauma

Schizophrenia three times more likely after childhood trauma

By Ian Birch

Researchers at Liverpool University say children who suffer severe trauma are three times more likely to suffer from schizophrenia in later life than other people.

Young woman with schizophreniaPublished in the journal Schizophrenia Bulletin, the study is an analysis of research spanning 30 years into the causes of the mental illness.

The researchers looked at more than 27,000 research papers to extract data from three types of studies: those addressing the progress of children known to have experienced adversity, studies of randomly selected members of the population, and research on psychotic patients who were asked about their early childhood.

The Liverpool team also conducted a new study which looked at the relationship between specific psychotic symptoms and the type of trauma experienced in childhood. They found that different traumas led to different symptoms.  Childhood sexual abuse, for example, was associated with hallucinations, whilst being brought up in a children’s home was associated with paranoia.  The research further suggests a strong relationship between environment and the development of psychosis, and provides clues about the mechanisms leading to severe mental illness.

Richard P Bentall, a leading expert on the illness and professor at Liverpool University’s Institute of Psychology, Health and Society, said:

“The causes of psychotic disorders, particularly schizophrenia, are a source of controversy amongst psychiatrists, psychologists and doctors. There is also disagreement about how the disorders are defined.  It’s not unusual, for example, for a patient to be diagnosed with schizophrenia by one psychiatrist, but as bipolar by another.

“Our findings suggest that studies on the neurological and genetic factors associated with these conditions, which are not yet fully understood, are more like to advance our knowledge if we take into account a patient’s life experiences.   We need to know, for example, how childhood trauma affects the developing brain, as well as whether there are genetic factors that increase vulnerability or resilience to traumatic events.

“These questions will need new research strategies, such as studies comparing traumatised children who grow up to be psychologically healthy and those who go on to develop mental illness.  Looking at the brain or genes only is unlikely to tell us what we need to know in order to treat a patient effectively.

“Now that we know environment is a major factor in psychosis and that there are direct links between specific experiences and symptoms of the condition, it is even more vital that psychiatric services routinely question patients about their life experience.  Surprisingly, some psychiatric teams do not address these issues and only focus on treating a patient with medication.”

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