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Low Childhood Social Function a Good Predictor of Schizophrenia

A study reveals that many years before a person begins to experience schizophrenia-spectrum disorder symptoms their social difficulty is a good predictor of schizophrenia. Teachers played a large role in the research, providing rich insight into children’s social ability and function.

Schizophrenia is a psychiatric disorder which affects over 2 million Americans at a rate of 7.2 people per 1,000, according to experts, and there are 100,000 new cases of schizophrenia each year. This means that schizophrenia-spectrum disorders are infrequent in comparison to many other mental health disorders, but they still affect a significant number of us.

The illness is characterized by paranoia, delusions, hallucinations, social isolation, diminished cognition, lack of motivation and noticeable self-neglect. Schizophrenia disorders tend to show up in later adolescence around 15-25 years of age. On average, the problem becomes apparent for men earlier than for women with men experiencing onset around age 18 and women around age 25.

The 48-year-long study looked at how teachers scored children on a psychometric scale before they were ever diagnosed with schizophrenia and then compared those scores to eventual mental health outcomes. The research involved 244 individuals now in their early thirties. Of the 244, there were 33 with a diagnosis of a schizophrenia-spectrum disorder, 78 with a diagnosis of some other mental health disorder and 133 with no mental health diagnosis.

The kids who went on to develop schizophrenia-spectrum disorder had the lowest social functioning scores at age 10-13 compared to their peers. Scores for these kids averaged 17.5 out of a possible 25 while youth who developed other mental illnesses averaged 20.7, and those with no mental illness earned 21.7.

Experts suggest that low social functioning may both predict and contribute to the disease. Low social ability signals later problems, but the stress of social inability may also deepen the risk of developing the illness.

Most of the kids in the study who went on to experience a schizophrenia-spectrum disorder were already in a high-risk category. The illness is highly heritable, so having a parent who has been hospitalized for schizophrenia places a child at increased risk. Nevertheless, the existence of family risk did not negate the ability of early social functioning to predict later development of the disorder. Furthermore, the connection between early social ability and later disorder was unaffected by economic or gender status.

There is still hope.

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