Northern Ireland news

Research suggests schizophrenia and bipolar disorder may be detectable years before illnesses begin

The findings suggest the possibility of earlier intervention and even prevention
Suzanne McGonagle

THE risk of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder can be detected years before they manifest, new research suggests.

A University College Dublin (UCD) led study has found that 50 per cent of people who developed these mental health disorders had attended specialist child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS) in childhood.

Professor Ian Kelleher from UCD said the findings suggest the possibility of earlier intervention and even prevention.

"Schizophrenia and bipolar disorder typically emerge in early adulthood and can have a devastating impact on the individuals affected, as well as on their families," he said.

"Our findings show that half of individuals who develop these illnesses had come to CAMHS at some stage in childhood, typically many years before they developed schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.

"We know that early intervention is key to improving outcomes for people with serious mental illness.

"These findings demonstrate the enormous opportunities to provide far earlier intervention, even while still in childhood, by developing specialist early intervention services within existing child and adolescent mental health services."

Schizophrenia and bipolar disorder are serious mental illnesses affecting about 65 million people worldwide.

Both disorders are usually diagnosed in adulthood and are often associated with high levels of disability, personal and societal cost. Early intervention, however, is known to lead to better outcomes for people affected by these illnesses.

Researchers used Finland’s healthcare registers to trace all individuals born in 1987 throughout childhood and adolescence to see if, between birth and age 17 years, they ever attended CAMHS.

Using unique patient identifiers, the researchers were able to follow all these individuals up to age 28 and see who went on to be diagnosed with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.

They found that the risk of psychosis or bipolar disorder by age 28 was 1.8 per cent for individuals who had not attended CAMHS.

For individuals who had attended outpatient CAMHS in adolescence, the risk was 15 per cent and for those admitted to an inpatient adolescent CAMHS hospital, the risk was 37 per cent.

Stressing the importance of early intervention, Professor Kelleher added: "These findings highlight the possibility of intervening far earlier than we do at present, even in childhood and adolescence, to prevent these serious mental illnesses from emerging".

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