6 August 2019

Understanding symptoms of childhood trauma could help treat psychosis

Understanding symptoms of childhood trauma could help treat psychosis

There is growing evidence of a link between childhood trauma and first-episode psychosis.

Research led by Orygen’s Dr Sarah Bendall has added to that body of evidence with a study showing that 53% of young people with psychosis had experienced childhood trauma.

“More than half of the young people who attend early psychosis services have experienced moderate to severe trauma,” Dr Bendall said. “If we include mild traumas the percentage could be higher.”

The study, published in the British Journal of Clinical Psychology, investigated the relationships between trauma, psychotic symptoms (hallucinations and delusions), post-traumatic intrusions and trauma-related beliefs.

“Analyses revealed that post-traumatic intrusions were independently associated with hallucination severity; while post-traumatic intrusions and trauma-related beliefs were associated with delusion severity.”

Dr Bendall said post-traumatic intrusions included flashbacks.

“Post-traumatic intrusions are where people have unwanted memories of traumatic experiences and extreme emotions when reminded of traumatic experiences,” Dr Bendall said.

Trauma-related beliefs included feeling vulnerable, picturing others as hostile and self-blame for the trauma.

“People with trauma-related beliefs are having strong beliefs about the effects of trauma -- things like thinking that the world is an unsafe place, or thinking they might be damaged as a result of the trauma,” Dr Bendall said.

The findings implied that treating post-traumatic intrusions and beliefs could lead to a reduction in psychotic symptoms.

“It gives us more confidence that we can treat some hallucinations and delusions with the same psychological interventions we use to treat PTSD,” Dr Bendall said.

Dr Bendall hoped that the research would lead to routine assessment and treatment of childhood trauma and post-traumatic stress in clinical services dealing with first-episode psychosis.

“We need early psychosis clinicians to be comfortable treating trauma and we need to have clear evidence-based treatments for them to use,” she said.

“It should be seen as a normal part of early psychosis treatment.”