For the first time researchers at the University of Queensland’s Faculty of Medicine, led by PhD candidate Amanuel Abajobir, have found a clear link between childhood maltreatment and the serious psychiatric illness generally thought to be caused by genetics.
Psychosis involves a loss of contact with reality and is often a sign of a psychiatric disorder such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.
Studies have consistently shown that those who have psychosis report higher rates of maltreatment.
But the data has been quite subjective as it’s been based on the patient’s perception, says co-author Associate Professor James Scott at UoQ.
This robust research, he says, has remarkably shown that a substantiated maltreatment results in a very significant increased risk of a biological psychiatric disorder.
“Environmental risk factors are very important even for the most biological psychiatric disorders like psychosis,” said Scott.
Researchers analysed data from the Mater Hospital-Queensland University Study of Pregnancy conducted between 2009-14.
The more than 3700 children who had experienced substantiated childhood maltreatment before the age of 14 were at a “10-fold” increased risk of hallucinations, delusions and psychosis at the age of 21 compared to children who were not abused.
Children who experienced emotional abuse and neglect appeared to be particularly vulnerable to developing psychotic symptoms including hallucinations.
Scott, who will present the study at the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists (RANZCP) this week, says emotional abuse can be just as damaging as physical and sexual abuse and parents need more support to manage their child’s behaviour.
“Government policy should be aiming at upskilling parents and looking to support parents so their less likely emotionally abuse their children,” he told AAP.
While the majority of abused and neglected children did not go on to develop psychosis, more needs to be done to protect children, says Professor Malcolm Hopwood, President of the RANZCP.
“It is known that childhood abuse and neglect are associated with a wide range of mental health issues including depression and anxiety,” said Hopwood.
“It is important to support abuse survivors and I would encourage individuals grappling with these issues to seek early treatment and assistance.”
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