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April 29, 2019
by Elizabeth Pratt

Growing Up in Poor Neighborhoods Increases Risk of Psychosis-Spectrum Illnesses

April 29, 2019 08:00 by Elizabeth Pratt  [About the Author]

Growing up in poverty can impact a person in many ways.

Now, new research from the University of California Davis has found that growing up in an impoverished neighborhood more than doubles the chance of a person developing a psychosis-spectrum disorder by middle adulthood.

“We found that children who were raised in more disadvantaged urban neighborhoods were more likely to develop schizophrenia and bipolar disorder with psychosis over the next 30 years, compared to children raised in more economically advantaged urban neighborhoods. The combination of neighborhood conditions and children's social characteristics also contributed to their risk,” Paul Hastings, PhD, author of the study and a professor of psychology at UC Davis told Theravive.

In collaboration with researchers from Concordia University in Quebec, Hastings and colleagues followed the lives of nearly 11 thousand people living in families in low-income urban areas of Montreal, Quebec.

The Concordia Longitudinal Research Project began in the 1970s when the earlier researchers set out to test theories on the role adversity early in life played in the development of psychiatric disorders. In undertaking their research, Hastings and his colleagues examined medical records for the families involved in the study spanning the previous three decades. They also looked at census data that detailed the economic conditions of the neighbourhoods the families lived in. Most of the children involved were 10 years of age at the beginning of the study, and the project followed them until they were 40 years of age. The parents of the children, aged from their late 30s at the beginning of the study, were also followed until their late 60s. 

As the researchers were able to note the diagnoses of parents in the study, they could then predict the likelihood of psychiatric disorders in the children beyond what might be heredity. They found over six per cent of the children studied developed schizophrenia and bipolar disorder with psychosis, as well as other psychosis-spectrum disorders, by the time they were middle aged. The children who grew up in the neighbourhoods experiencing the greatest economic disadvantage were most likely to be diagnosed with bipolar disorder or schizophrenia.   As well as this, the researchers examined peer reports given to the children’s’ classmates to assess their likeability, level of aggression or withdrawal.  

“Children who were described by their peers as both aggressive and socially withdrawn, and who also grew up in more disadvantaged neighborhoods, were more likely to develop other psychosis-spectrum mental illnesses.  Similarly, children who were aggressive and withdrawn and who experienced worsening neighborhood conditions as they matured into adults also were more likely to develop other psychosis-spectrum mental illnesses,” Hastings said.

Although heredity is a known factor in predicting diagnoses of schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, Hastings says the research shows that environmental factors that children experience during their childhood can also affect their future mental health. 

“Serious mental health problems are not simply the inevitable results of genetics and hard-wiring. Children's experiences in their social and physical environments also affect their future health and well-being. To prevent these diseases, we need to invest in children, families and their neighborhoods,” he told Theravive.    

Psychosis-spectrum illnesses are mental illnesses that cause a person’s perceptions and thinking to differ from reality. For those experiencing the conditions, like bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, the world can be scary, unpredictable or confusing. Psychoses that can be experienced with the illness may involve seeing or hearing things that aren’t present, or delusions, such as having an unrealistic belief about the world.

Those living with psychosis-spectrum illnesses may find it difficult to have healthy relationships or stay employed, due to others viewing their behaviour as unpredictable or scary.

Hastings says that there are a number of childhood factors that could predict the later diagnosis of a psychosis-spectrum illness. He argues this is useful information, because it also means there are potentially many points in a person’s life where intervention could take place, and prevent the illness from developing at all.  

He says it could start with making neighbourhoods a more positive environment.

“Societies could invest more in improving neighborhood conditions for socioeconomically disadvantaged neighborhoods, and obviously this would incur many other benefits in addition to reducing mental health problems. Actions such as improving school quality, providing safe parks and community facilities, reducing pollution, and creating local employment opportunities would reduce the prevalence of future psychosis-spectrum mental illnesses -- and also reduce future respiratory, cardiovascular and other physical illnesses, and increase the likelihood of successful school completion and gainful employment, among other things,” he told Theravive.

As well as this, Hastings' findings suggest there may be intervention options for children displaying atypical social behaviours.

“We may be able to identify school-age children who are manifesting atypical social characteristics and who would benefit from cognitive-behavioral and other psychosocial treatments designed to scaffold their self-regulation and social integration, and thereby prevent future diagnoses. It is important to recognize that not all children with such behavior patterns are going to be on a course toward developing psychosis-spectrum mental illnesses-- in fact, most won't. These illnesses are uncommon. Atypical social characteristics are not any kind of early diagnosis; they are evidence of increased likelihood. That likelihood can be changed; it can be reduced, with proper assistance,” he said.  

About the Author

Elizabeth Pratt

Elizabeth Pratt is a medical journalist and producer. Her work has appeared on Healthline, The Huffington Post, Fox News, The Australian Broadcasting Corporation, The Sydney Morning Herald,, Escape, The Cusp and Skyscanner. You can read more of her articles here. Or learn more about Elizabeth and contact her via her LinkedIn and Twitter profiles.

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