Growing Up In Urban Poverty Greatly Increases Risk Of Developing Mental Illness

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Urban poverty more doubles the risk of psychosis, greatly compounding the influence of hereditary factors.

A new University of California, Davis and Concordia University study found that being raised in impoverished city neighborhoods more than doubles the chances of developing a psychosis-spectrum disorder compared to the risk of an average person.

The researchers monitored roughly 4,000 families over the span of 30 years. The conclusion of their study implies that structural intervention in the form of neighborhood investment and social policies, in addition to careful observation of child behavior, could greatly reduce the risk of future crippling illnesses and the personal, social, and economic costs tied with them.

“One important message to take from this study is that the stresses and chronic day-to-day challenges of living in under-resourced or impoverished communities can undermine the well-being of individuals whether they seem to have a vulnerability or not,” said UC Davis psychology professor and lead study author Paul Hastings. While heredity is a key contributor to the risk of developing psychotic disorders including schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, Hastings explained that the study clearly shows the large extent to which environmental factors influence future mental health outcomes.

The study, titled “Predicting psychosis-spectrum diagnoses in adulthood from social behaviors and neighborhood contexts in childhood,” was published Wednesday in the journal Development and Psychopathology. Alex Schwartzman and Jane Ledingham initially launched the Concordia Longitudinal Research Project in the 1970s to test existing theories on the role of social factors on later psychiatric disorder development.

The researchers studied families in poor urban areas of Montréal, Québec and collected census data and medical records from the family members, which comprised of almost 11,000 individuals by the end of the study. The children, at the study’s inception, were aged 10 on average. According to Hastings, the researchers were able to identify parental diagnoses and determined that the children's rate of psychiatric disorders in the future were well above rates predicted solely by inheritance.

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