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Childhood Trauma Can Raise the Risk for Psychotic Disorders by 50 Times

Most recent research about bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, the two most serious mental diseases, has focused on genetic factors and biological differences in individual brain function. However, some of the newest research is about childhood trauma and how these early negative life experiences increase a person's risk for developing schizophrenia, bipolar disease, and psychotic depression -- all serious conditions that can result in hallucinations, paranoia, bizarre thoughts, and other debilitating symptoms. Schizophrenia, by the way, is frequently misdiagnosed as bipolar disorder.

Scientists at the University of Liverpool in Great Britain performed a mega-analysis on 27,000 previous studies of mental illnesses. They looked for three particular kinds of research -- studies about the progress of children who have experienced trauma, studies about randomly selected members of the population, and studies on psychotic patients who were asked about their early childhood. The results of their research clearly shows that early childhood experiences can be a risk factor for mental illness. Children who experienced any type of trauma before they were 16 years old had three times the risk of becoming psychotic in adulthood compared to those selected randomly from the population. Severe trauma put children at up to a 50-fold increase for mental illness, compared to those who experienced trauma to a lesser extent.

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

Certain kinds of trauma were associated with certain kinds of mental illness. For example, being sexually abused as a child was linked to having hallucinations, but being brought up in an orphanage was linked to paranoia.

According to Dr. Bentall, "The cause of psychotic disorders, particularly schizophrenia, are a source of controversy among psychiatrists, psychologists, and doctors. There is also disagreement on how the disorders are defined. ... Our findings suggest that studies on the neurological and genetic factors associated with these conditions, which are not yet fully understood, are more likely to advance our knowledge, if we take into account a patient's life experience. 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."

The study appears in the journal Schizophrenia Bulletin.

Posted on August 31st, 2012
Posted in Mental Health

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