Behind the headlines: Can divorce cause psychosis?

Are people from broken homes more susceptible to mental illness? Sanjay Tanday looks at the research

What is the story?  

Experiencing family break-up before the age of 16 makes a person two and a half times more likely to develop mental illnesses than those from two-parent families, according to media reports.  

The papers claim that the risk of schizophrenia is higher if children have been separated from parents for at least a year, or if one or both parents have died.  

African-Caribbeans had the highest rates of schizophrenia and psychosis. This could be because family breakdown occurs in 31 per cent of these families compared with 18 per cent of white families, the papers said.  

What is the research?  

The media reports are based on two sister studies by UK researchers interested in how rates of mental illnesses differed between ethnic groups.  

The study involved 568 patients aged 16–64 who were attending hospital with their first documented symptoms of psychosis. Participants were from six different ethnic groups.  

When frequency of symptoms such as delusions, hallucinations and thought disorders were compared by ethnicity, the researchers found psychotic illness was more common in all non-white ethnic groups than in whites.  

The highest rate of schizophrenia was among African-Caribbeans. They had a nine-fold higher rate of schizophrenia than other ethnic groups.  

To try to explain the differences, the researchers began a second study looking at the family history of the participants.  

Analysis of data on age at separation or parental death, the length of separation and the type of substitute care showed people from broken homes were two and a half times more likely to develop psychosis than those who lived with both parents until the age of 16.  

The researchers suggested that the higher rate of schizophrenia in the African-Caribbean population could be because 31 per cent experienced long-term separation from at least one parent before the age of 16. This compared with 18 per cent of white British participants.  

What do the researchers say?  

Lead researcher Dr Paul Fearon, senior lecturer at the Institute of Psychiatry in London, said: ‘Our findings point to social and environmental factors in the development of schizophrenia.  

‘The high prevalence in the African-Caribbean population cannot be explained by just social factors; genetic factors are also involved.’  

The finding adds to a growing body of research contradicting the belief that the pathology of schizophrenia is largely genetic.  

‘Studies in identical twins have shown that if one twin has schizophrenia, the other twin will have a 50 per cent chance of having the disorder,’ said Dr Fearon. ‘It would be 100 per cent if it were down to genetics alone.’  

What do the experts say?  

Professor Tim Kendall, joint director of the National Collaborative Centre for Mental Health, said: ‘Parental loss during childhood is a significant event that can have a powerful effect.  

‘So much of the work on schizophrenia focuses on genetics, but this study is a breath of fresh air.’  

Researchers should be looking at how social factors differ between ethnic groups, he added.  

Paul Corry, director of public affairs for the mental health charity Rethink, said the findings highlit the need for schizophrenia treatment to take into account the wider social context.

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