Preventing Schizophrenia

Research conducted in the past decade indicates that schizophrenia is due to a genetic predisposition and environmental stressors early in a child’s development (during pregnancy and birth, and/or early childhood) which lead to subtle alterations in the brain that make a person susceptible to developing schizophrenia. Additional environmental factors and stresses later in life (during childhood, adolescence and young adulthood) can either damage the already vulnerable brain further or lessen the expression of neurodevelopmental defects and decrease the risk of schizophrenia.

While the precise mechanisms that underlie the development of schizophrenia are just starting to be understood research does suggest many important actions that individuals and families can take (or avoid doing) to lower the risk of schizophrenia and other mental illnesses. In this document we’ve identified the specific actions that research suggests are most likely to reduce your, or your child’s, risk of mental illness.

Scientists now know that genes are not destiny. While a person may have some of the genes that are associated with increased risk of mental illness - research suggests that only if a person is exposed to specific environmental factors and perceived stresses do the genes become active and thereby further increase the risk for, or trigger, the illness.

There is no specific amount of genetic or environmental input that has been identified that will ensure someone will or will not develop schizophrenia so it is never to late or too early to begin planning for your mental health and that of your children. Research now shows that in mental health the biology, psychology and social /emotional environment are closely interdependent - so factors in each of these areas are important to address. Please note that the following information is targeted at optimizing children’s mental health in general, not just avoidance of schizophrenia.

Before going into the specific risk reduction strategies its important to know the initial risks that a person may face of getting schizophrenia. In the general population, for someone who has no family history of mental illness, the average risk is estimated at approximately 1% (and therefore a 99% probability that the person will not get schizophrenia). If someone who is genetically related to a person in the extended family that does have schizophrenia, then the risk is higher - and the chart below provides a rough estimate of that risk. If, for example, you have an aunt or uncle who developed schizophrenia, then your risk (on average) is estimated at approximately 3% (and therefore there is a 97% probability you won’t get schizophrenia). Even for the situation where one parent has schizophrenia the risk is estimated at 13% for a child, which means there is an 87% probability that the person will not develop schizophrenia. If a family has a history of more than one person developing schizophrenia then the risk goes up. People who have a strong history of mental illness in their family may want to consider genetic counseling in addition to the schizophrenia prevention tactics identified below.

Mary Cannon, M.D., Ph.D., M.R.C.Psych., Peter B. Jones, M.D., Ph.D., M.R.C. Psych., and Robin M. Murray, M.D., D.Sc., F.R.C.Psych.


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