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Childhood Adversity is a Major Risk Factor for Schizophrenia


There are a number of factors that put people at risk for schizophrenia, including genetic predisposition and environmental influences. Conditions experienced during childhood are also known to help determine risk for schizophrenia and other psychotic and non-psychotic problems. However, until now, no research has been conducted examining how childhood adversity affects risk for schizophrenia compared to other illnesses. To get a better idea of how various forms of adversity influence future mental health, Sandra L. Matheson of the Schizophrenia Research Institute in Sydney, Australia recently analyzed 25 separate studies about childhood adversity and mental health.

Matheson considered risk factors such as neglect, physical abuse, emotional abuse, childhood sexual abuse, and trauma, and assessed how much they increased the likelihood of mental health problems including anxiety, depression, bipolar, psychosis, post-traumatic stress (PTSD), and schizophrenia. She found that compared to participants with no evidence of psychiatric problems, those with schizophrenia had more childhood adversity. Specifically, childhood adversity predicted schizophrenia more than anxiety and increased the chance of dissociative disorders and PTSD more than schizophrenia. Matheson also discovered that childhood sexual abuse was more likely to predict PTSD, depression, and anxiety than schizophrenia. Upon further investigation, she found that childhood sexual abuse also had a small effect on the development of personality disorders.

The studies that Matheson looked at covered a broad range of childhood adversities and mental illnesses, but did not address every type of psychological problem. “No meta-analysis has yet been conducted that assesses rates of childhood adversity in affective psychosis,” said Matheson. Future work should be aimed at exploring the link between childhood adversity in general and more specifically with respect to psychosis. Until then, Matheson hopes the results of this study illuminate certain risk factors that could lead to the development of schizophrenia and other mental health problems. Clinicians working with clients who have experienced these types of events should be aware of the potential for these illnesses to develop and be mindful of symptoms that could indicate their presence.

Matheson, S. L., A. M. Shepherd, R. M. Pinchbeck, K. R. Laurens, and V. J. Carr. Childhood adversity in schizophrenia: A systematic meta-analysis. Psychological Medicine 43.2 (2013): 225-38. Print.

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  • Iris February 5th, 2013 at 3:53 PM #1

    Do you think that it actually acts as a risk or is it simply a trigger to start something that was already there to begin with?

  • belle February 6th, 2013 at 3:58 AM #2

    Adversity, though can be overcome. Schizophrenia, though, while you may can manage it, is not something that can be easily squelched. That’s why I have a hard time with this. To me schizophrenia would be something genetic, lying there in wait. It does not feel that something that one experiences on the outside would create it.

  • Smitty February 6th, 2013 at 8:56 PM #3

    I would wager that the effect of double-binds (catch-22’s or crazy making situations), where there is deception on the part of caretakers at an early age, would be the kind of adversity that could trigger psychosis and schizophrenia.

    Schizophrenia is not the organic brain disorder we think, it has multiple causes.

  • aline February 6th, 2013 at 11:31 PM #4

    sad to know so many cases of the disorder could have been due to preventable factors…really hope people out there get the message and take steps to prevent any such happening in their own children…!

  • Margie February 8th, 2013 at 11:08 AM #5

    Adversity as defined by whom? What may equate to adversity for one person may only be a challenge for another person, as way for them to work hard and to over come. I think that for this to be completely relevant you have to look at things that are clearly objective rather than things that could instead be looked at subjectively.

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