Moving school may increase risk of psychotic symptoms in late teens

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Hallucinations, delusions and disturbed thoughts in young people may in part be due to frequently moving school as a child, according to a new study.

Researchers from the University of Warwick Medical School and the Birmingham and Solihull Mental Health Foundation Trust analysed data on more than 4,000 people born in 1991, who are taking part in the Avon Longitudinal Study of Young People and Children.

When study members were 18 years old they were interviewed by trained psychologists to discover whether they had experienced any psychotic symptoms in the past six months.

The study, which was funded by the National Institute for Health Research and Birmingham and Solihull Mental Health NHS Foundation Trust, found that young people who had moved schools four or more times were more than twice as likely to develop at least one psychotic symptom by 18, compared to those who had not moved schools repeatedly.

Of those study members who had moved schools repeatedly, almost 10 per cent had developed at least one psychotic symptom. This was in contrast to 4 per cent of children who had not moved schools.

Psychotic symptoms such as hallucinations, delusions, and confused or disturbed thoughts can be a precursor to psychotic disorders.

Professor Professor Swaran Singh, from the University of Warwick Medical School and Birmingham and Solihull Mental Health Foundation Trust, said: “The study findings suggest that school moves in particular are harmful and may increase feelings of isolation and stress in those who have already experienced social exclusion. School moves may also indicate other underlying problems, such as family breakdown, which may further contribute to an increased risk of psychosis.”

Moving schools was linked to psychotic symptoms even after taking into account important risk factors for psychosis including cannabis use, bullying, ethnicity and social disadvantage.

A previous study by the same researchers looked at associations with psychotic symptoms at 12 years. The study found that moving school during childhood heightens the risk of developing psychotic-like symptoms in early adolescence by up to 60 per cent.

In addition, the association between school moves and psychotic symptoms was partly due to an increased risk of bullying. The present study extends this work by demonstrating long-term associations between school moves and psychotic symptoms.

Findings from these two studies suggest that programmes aimed at reducing school moves, and associated peer problems, may help reduce the risk of psychosis.

Co-author Dr Catherine Winsper of the University of Warwick Medical School said: “Although school mobility appears to be a strong risk factor for psychotic symptoms in early and late adolescence, the majority of children who experience repeated school moves will not develop psychosis.”

Read the full paper

‘School mobility during childhood predicts psychotic symptoms in late adolescence’ by Catherine Winsper, Dieter Wolke, Alex Bryson, Andrew Thompson and Swaran P. Singh was published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry in May 2016.