In 2010, Professor John Read, University of Auckland, published a study in the New Zealand Journal of Psychology. The study, “Can Poverty Drive you Mad? ‘Schizophrenia’, Socio-Economic Status and the Case for Primary Prevention,” makes a strong case for the link between poverty and higher incidences of schizophrenia. Read explains people living in poverty are eight times more likely to develop schizophrenia than individuals living above the poverty line.
The role of big pharma
Read places blame for the imbalance on the pharmaceutical industry. He writes that half of all mental health websites are funded by drug companies. The reason? A widespread promotion of a biological rationale for the cause of mental illness. Read says the industry cannot develop a drug to alleviate poverty; it can and does develop drugs to treat schizophrenia.
The pharmaceutical giant Smith, Kline and French developed Chlorpromazine as one of the first medications for schizophrenia. The drug, a neuroleptic, received approval from the Food and Drug Administration in 1955; in its first year on the market, it made $75 million for Smith, Kline and French.
This model addresses multiple sources as possible causes for schizophrenia. Under this rubric, psychiatrists examine the dimensions of a person’s life. Read explains the psychiatric community lost a golden opportunity to make significant advances because the pharmaceutical industry lobbied long and hard for the medical model instead. This, despite the fact in 1977, Joseph Zubin and Bonnie Spring published an article in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology, which proved people with schizophrenia have what Zubin and Spring termed acquired vulnerability. This sense of uncertainty can be due to trauma, disease, perinatal complications, family life, adolescent and peer interactions and other events. According to the authors, these events, coupled with other events occurring in the person’s life, can have a profound effect on the development of schizophrenia.
Long longitudinal studies
Read cites research going back to 1911, when the term schizophrenia was first coined. He references a 1939 study in Chicago, which demonstrated individuals living in the poorest areas of the city were seven times more likely to be diagnosed with schizophrenia than those Chicagoans living in the richest parts.
During the 1950s, research in Norway, Bristol, Liverpool and London found the same relationship between poverty and a diagnosis of schizophrenia. Read quotes Melvin Kohn’s 1977 “Class and Conformity: A Study in Values.” Kohn writes, “There have been more than 50 studies of the relationship between social class and rates of schizophrenia. Almost without exception, these studies have shown that schizophrenia occurs most frequently at the lowest social class level of urban society.”
What the public believes
Read observes surveys in 16 countries where the majority opinion of those polled is that psycho-social factors are more influential than bio-genetic factors examining the onset of schizophrenia. He cites the work of Matthias C. Angermeyer and Herbert Matschinger who found that among Londoners, the most common cause of schizophrenia was “unusual or traumatic experiences or the failure to negotiate some critical state of emotional development.”
Read concludes his article by stating early prevention is the key to reducing schizophrenia. He acknowledges the poor will always be with us. But he implores governments all over the world to make mental health investments in the first five years of every child’s life. Only by doing this will the poor be spared the onslaught, he concludes.