City life can cause psychotic episodes in teenagers

24 May 2017

Young people living in busy cities are more likely to experience psychotic episodes such as paranoia, a new study has found.

Researchers from King’s College London and Duke University studied the behaviour of 2,000 18-year-olds living in built-up areas in England and Wales, with each given a level of ‘urbanicity’ using their postcode.

Neighbourhood social factors including assaults and vandalism were also measured through surveys of over 5,000 immediate neighbours of the participants.

The results showed that adolescents living in cities were 40 per cent more at risk of having psychotic episodes, with over a third of teenagers (34 percent) reporting symptoms between the ages of 12 and 18.

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And those who resided in areas with higher crime levels were 62 percent more likely to suffer psychotic experiences than young people living in more rural areas. Psychosis was diagnosed if one of 13 experiences were reported, such as hearing voices and fearing their food was poisoned.

“These findings highlight the importance of early, preventative strategies for reducing psychosis risk and suggests that adolescents living in threatening neighbourhoods within cities should be made a priority,” Dr Helen Fisher, a researcher at King's College, said.

“If we intervene early enough, for example by offering psychological therapies and support to help them cope better with stressful experiences, we could reduce young people's risk of developing psychosis and other mental health problems further down the line.”

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The researchers believe there is a number of reasons why city life would cause such issues, such as a boosted biological response to stress causing dopamine in the brain to be disrupted. An excess amount of dopamine is currently seen as a reason behind illnesses like schizophrenia.

There are also factors such as lack of support and trust between people in cities which contribute to young people's mental state.

“Our study suggests that the effects of city life on psychotic experiences are not limited to childhood but continue into late adolescence, which is one of the peak ages at which clinical psychotic disorders are typically diagnosed,” co-author Jo Newbury of King's College added.

Results were published in Schizophrenia Bulletin.

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