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Childhood maltreatment linked to adult psychosis

05 May 2017

Australian children with a history of maltreatment were at greater risk of developing psychosis as young adults, according to a new study.

Associate Professor James Scott from the University of Queensland’s Faculty of Medicine said the research found a clear link between childhood maltreatment and the development of psychosis in early adulthood.

“Until recently psychosis, which includes illnesses such as schizophrenia, were thought to be biological in origin, with sufferers inheriting a genetic pre-disposition towards developing psychosis,” Associate Professor Scott said.

“Our research makes it increasingly apparent that childhood maltreatment is a risk factor among those who go on to develop some form of psychosis as young adults.

“We found that children who had experienced substantiated childhood maltreatment before the age of 14 were more likely to report hallucinations, lifetime delusional experiences and lifetime psychosis at the age of 21, than children who were not abused.

“Children who had experienced emotional abuse and neglect appeared to be particularly vulnerable to developing psychotic symptoms including hallucinations, delusional thinking and psychotic disorders.

“However, it is important to stress that the vast majority of children who experienced childhood maltreatment did not go on to develop psychosis.

“We need further research to understand why some children who are maltreated have no adult mental illness, while others develop severe conditions like schizophrenia and related disorders.”

The research conducted by PhD Candidate Amanuel Abajobir, Professors Steve Kisely, Jake Najman and James Scott drew on data from more than 3,752 young adults who had experienced substantiated childhood maltreatment and who were part of the Mater Hospital-Queensland University Study of Pregnancy.

The study will be presented to the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists (RANZCP) Annual Congress from 30 April to 4 May at the Adelaide Convention Centre.

RANZCP President, Professor Malcolm Hopwood said the study added to evidence that childhood trauma contributed to a legacy of poor mental health.  

“It is known that childhood abuse and neglect are associated with a wide range of mental health issues including depression, anxiety and depression,” Professor Hopwood said.

“Now this research demonstrates the link between maltreatment and psychosis and underlines once again the need to have adequate systems in place to protect children. 

“It is also important to support abuse survivors and I would encourage individuals who may be grappling with these issues to seek early treatment and assistance.”

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The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists is a membership organisation that prepares medical specialists in the field of psychiatry, supports and enhances clinical practice, advocates for people affected by mental illness and advises governments on mental health care. For information about our work, our members or our history, visit