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The Royal College of Psychiatrists Improving the lives of people with mental illness

Childhood abuse associated with psychosis in women

Embargoed until 01 April 2009

Women with severe mental illness are more likely to have been abused in childhood than the general population, new research suggests. But the same association has not been found in men.

Researchers from the Institute of Psychiatry, King’s College London, believe their findings point to differences in the way boys and girls respond to traumatic and upsetting experiences.

The study, published in the April issue of the British Journal of Psychiatry, compared two groups of adults. All the participants were aged between 16 and 64, and lived in either south-east London or Nottingham.

Those in the first group had experienced psychotic symptoms, such as hallucinations or delusions and received treatment for depression, mania or schizophrenia. Those in the second group had no mental health problems, and acted as a control. Both groups were asked whether they experienced physical or sexual abuse during their childhood.

Women with psychosis were twice as likely to report either physical or sexual abuse compared to healthy women. But no such association was found in men. The researchers suggest that one explanation for this is that girls are more likely to ‘internalise’ difficulties than boys. In other words, girls who are abused may distance themselves from other people, and become overly suspicious of other people’s behaviour. This may put them at greater risk of psychotic symptoms in the future, such as paranoid delusions. In contrast, boys may be more likely to ‘act out’ following physical abuse and potentially be at greater risk for antisocial behaviour.

The researchers said: “These findings point to the need for gender-specific interventions for abused children to prevent later mental health and behavioural problems.”

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