Children who are sexually abused before they are 16 are 10 times more likely to develop schizophrenia in later life, according to research published today.
The study – in the July issue of the British Journal of Psychiatry – also found the number of people with schizophrenia could fall by 17% if sexual abuse ceased.
Launching the research at the International Congress of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, lead researcher Professor Paul Bebbington called for all victims of sexual abuse identified by social services and the criminal justice system to be offered specialist support before psychiatric disorders emerge.
Non-consensual sexual intercourse before 16 was strongly associated with psychosis in later life, the researchers found, but weaker associations were also identified for those who had been sexually molested as a child or engaged in inappropriate sexual talk.
“The worse the abuse, the more it increases the risk of developing psychosis,” Bebbington said. “Someone who has experienced non-consensual sexual intercourse before the age of 16 is 10 times more likely to develop the mental disorder.
“It is possible to calculate that if childhood sexual abuse ceased, there might be as much as a 17% reduction in people suffering from schizophrenia.”
Bebbington said the increased risk of psychosis was likely to be linked “to the intrusive nature of childhood sexual abuse and having no control over what is happening to you”. This, he added, had “disastrous” effects on self-esteem and psychological well-being.
“Victims commonly describe sexual abuse as being accompanied by demands for secrecy and threats if the secrecy is broken, blocking effective social engagement and leading to isolation that itself leads to the development of psychotic symptoms,” he said.
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