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Refugees are at a heightened risk of psychotic disorders

Posted on 04-20-16 in Advocacy, Mental Health, Stress

Refugees are at a heightened risk of psychotic disorders

World War I. World War II. These are the conflicts we associate with mass displacement of people.

However, in 2015 the United Nations’ High Commission on Refugees reported the number of refugees displaced by conflicts, war and persecution reached an all-time high of 60 million that year. Many of those people have been displaced by the Syrian Civil War. According to the Syrian Center for Policy Research, the conflict has cost over 470,000 lives as of March 2016.

War is horrifying for both those fighting in it and those on the sidelines. Given the things refugees see and experience both during war and in the dangerous journey out of war zones, it’s hardly surprising studies have found refugees seeking asylum are strongly susceptible to anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. However, a new study – the first of its kind – shows refugees may also be at a high risk of developing psychotic disorders.

Examining refugees

Researchers from University College London and Sweden’s Karolinska Institute examined data on 1.3 million people living in Sweden, which was chosen as the study’s subject because it has approved more applications from refugees than any other wealthy country in the world. As the researchers examined the data, they kept track of mental health diagnoses, particularly on nonaffective psychotic disorders like schizophrenia.

After studying the data, the researchers found 3,704 people had been diagnosed with a nonaffective disorder in Sweden, and refugee immigrants were 66 percent more likely to develop one than nonrefugees. Refugees also had a higher likelihood of having a nonaffective disorder than people born in Sweden.

The data suggests psychological intervention may increasingly be needed in refugee communities, in addition to the cultural and medical issues often found in them. In the study, the authors wrote “Schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders lead to lifelong health and social adversities, culminating in a reduction in life expectancy of 10 to 25 years. Immigrants and their descendants are, on average, 2.5 times more likely to have a psychotic disorder than the majority ethnic group in a given setting.”

However, the data the researchers used did not show if the increased risk of psychosis came from experiences before, after or during their travels.

Causes of schizophrenia

Although the exact causes of schizophrenia and psychosis are unknown, according to Mayo Clinic, genetics and environment seem to play a role in the development of the disorder.  The National Institute on Mental Health (NIMH) says environmental factors for psychosis may include:

  • Viral exposure
  • Malnutrition before birth, or problems during birth itself
  • Psychosocial factors

Given the trauma people fleeing from war zones have generally experienced, it’s easy to assume there must be links between psychosis and trauma. However, the evidence is far less clear. A study published in the British Journal of Psychiatry in 2006 found trauma exposure may create a greater risk of psychosis in people who were already vulnerable to psychosis. Other psychiatric professionals have also reported finding relationships between trauma and psychosis later in life.

Due to cultural stigma and lurid media portrayals, psychotic disorders are often more likely to inspire fear and misunderstanding than compassion. However, they respond well to treatment. The Sovereign Health Group is a leading provider of effective, scientifically-backed mental health treatment. Our staff of compassionate professionals treat their patients as individuals, ensuring them the best possible chance of a lasting recovery. For more information, please contact our 24/7 helpline.

About the author

Brian Moore is a staff writer and graphic designer for the Sovereign Health Group. A 20-year veteran of the newspaper industry, he writes articles and creates graphics across Sovereign’s portfolio of marketing and content products. Brian enjoys music, bicycling and playing the tuba, which’s he’s done with varying degrees of success for over 25 years. For more information and other inquiries about this media, contact the author and designer at