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Social support could protect victimised teenagers from having psychotic experiences, finds new study

New research has found that greater social support and activities like exercise could protect children and teenagers, who have encountered multiple forms of victimisation, against psychotic experiences.

These findings potentially pave the way for new interventions to prevent psychotic experiences, which are linked to the development of severe mental illness later in life.

We took a closer look at the study and spoke to project lead and MQ researcher, Dr Helen Fisher, to find out more.

What’s the issue?

1 in 20 adolescents have psychotic experiences including hearing voices, having visions or extreme paranoia. These occurences have been linked to the development of psychotic disorders, such as schizophrenia, as well as a range of severe mental health problems including self-harm and suicide attempts.

Previous research has shown that being victimised during childhood and adolescence - for example, enduring physical abuse, sexual abuse or bullying by peers - increases the risk of psychotic experiences. Exposure to two or more types of victimisation (poly-victimisation) has been associated with the highest risk of psychotic occurrences.

The majority of previous research in this area has focussed on factors that increase risk. This study, led by Dr Helen Fisher, is the first to investigate factors that could protect young people from developing psychotic experiences.

What did they do?

Helen and her team at King’s College London used data from the E-Risk longitudinal twin study which followed over 2,000 children born in England and Wales from birth to the age of 18.

At the ages of 5, 7, 10, 12 and 18, participants completed assessments. These included IQ tests and questions about levels of physical activity, exposure to different types of victimisation, how they cope with stress, their family environment, their surrounding neighbourhood, and the amount of social support they received.

Helen’s team found that high levels of physical activity, greater levels of social support, and living in a cohesive neighbourhood were associated with an absence of psychotic experiences among the entire group. For the adolescents who had experienced poly-victimisation – and were therefore at a higher risk of having psychotic experiences - greater social support from family and friends showed particularly strong protective effects.

These findings are consistent with previous research which has found social support to be associated with positive emotional and behavioural adjustments during adolescence. Social support has been connected to improved self-esteem, decreased stress levels, and reduced loneliness.

Why does this matter?

Helen’s findings could support the development of vital interventions to prevent adolescents from having psychotic experiences and potentially from experiencing mental illness later in life. 

New interventions that focus on improving a young person’s social support or increasing their physical activity would be feasible to implement on a large scale. Helen recommends these interventions initially target those who have experienced poly-victimisation, giving them the best chance to lead healthy and fulfilling lives.

Helen said, "Creating interventions to ensure that adolescents get the right support early on provides real hope that we can stop severe mental illness from ever occurring. This will reap massive benefits - not only for individuals and their families, but also for businesses and society more broadly, as well as reducing the burden on our already stretched NHS.

"It could be as little as trying to find one person that adolescents can turn to that could make a huge difference – it’s encouraging that these interventions don’t have to be complicated or expensive.”  

You can read Helen’s full paper here.

Last updated: 13 August 2018

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