A new Australian study ‘Schizophrenia and Other Psychotic Disorders in a Cohort of Sexually Abused Children’ published in the Archives of General Psychiatry has found that children who are subjected to sexual abuse are more than twice as likely to suffer from schizophrenia later in life.

Professor Louise Newman, director of Monash University’s Centre for Developmental Psychiatry and Psychology, said the study was “hugely significant”.

The study took almost 3,000 sexually abused children in Victoria and found that two key factors greatly affected how sexually abused children developed; they were the age at which the abuse took place and the severity of the acts they endured.

Overall sexually abused children were around twice as likely to develop psychosis and 2.6 times as likely to develop schizophrenia compared with children who grew up in a safe and secure environment.

The worst case scenario was for children who had been exposed to penetrative abuse by multiple perpetrators as they were entering their teenage years between 12 and 16 years old. This group had an 8.6% higher chance of developing schizophrenia and 17% higher rates of psychosis.

Professor Newman said that these findings challenged traditional attitudes that associated schizophrenia with genetics; she said “The orthodox understanding of these conditions is that they’re genetically determined and emerge in adolescence.”

“That might be the time that clear symptoms become apparent, but… the early years of life, when the brain is growing, are when vulnerability is established.”

Writer Helen Splarn. Editor Dr Ramesh Manocha
Source: Arch Gen Psych 2010;67:1114-9