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Children born to parents with mental disorders face their own psychological challenges

Posted April 4, 2019

Already when they begin school, children born to parents who have at some point been diagnosed with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder have more psychological difficulties than their peers. This is shown by research results from ‘The Danish High Risk and Resilience Study VIA 7, iPSYCH. This new knowledge provides the possibility of developing targeted initiatives for particularly vulnerable groups of children, while also increasing our understanding of how mental illness arises and evolves.

The study is entitled ‘The Danish High Risk and Resilience Study’ and this first study is called The VIA 7 study because the 522 children were seven years old when they were first examined. Free image via Unsplash

Children whose parents have at some point in their life been diagnosed with schizophrenia are at the age of seven particularly prone to showing more signs of psychological difficulties than children whose parents have not suffered from schizophrenia or bipolar disorder (previously called manic depressive disorder).

Since 2013, a total of 522 children aged seven have been examined and interviewed by a group of researchers from the The Danish High Risk and Resilience Study – VIA 7 which is part of the iPSYCH national psychiatric research project. Of these children, 202 had at least one parent who had at some point in their life been diagnosed with schizophrenia. A total of 120 children had at least one parent who had at some point been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, while the remainder of the children had parents who have never had any the two psychiatric disorders.

“We can see that the frequency of child psychiatric diagnoses such as ADHD, anxiety, adjustment disorders and stress reactions are significantly higher in children whose parents have or have had schizophrenia. At the same time, these children have greater emotional and behavioural challenges than the rest of the children,” says medical doctor and PhD, Ditte Ellersgaard from the Capital Region of Denmark, Mental Health Services. She is one of the researchers behind the project.

The researchers interviewed the child’s primary caregiver about the child’s upbringing, well-being and current development and also sent questionnaires to the child’s teacher. Additionally, the child has contributed to interviews, carried out tasks and answered questionnaires.

Higher risk as a group

The researchers found that more than a third of the children whose parents were or had been ill fulfilled thecriteria for having or having had a child psychiatric diagnosis between the ages of 0-7 years. For children of parents with schizophrenia the figure was 39 percent, and for children of parents with bipolar disorder it was 36 percent. By comparison, the researchers found that only 15 percent of the children in the control group had at some point met the criteria for having or having had a diagnosis.

The study has been published in the international journal World Psychiatry.

“It’s important to point out that not all children of parents who have a psychiatric disorder themselves have psychological difficulties, but that the results are concerned with differences at a group level,” says Ditte Ellersgaard, before adding that “some of the children do really well, some are average, while others show signs of psychological problems that may appear as psychiatric symptoms such as anxiousness, sadness or difficulty concentrating, while some children are affected emotionally and therefore don’t really thrive.”

She emphasises that what is therefore needed are studies of how early intervention targeted at the particularly vulnerable groups of children can have an effect on the course of the children’s life in the future.

“Future follow-ups of the group of children who’ve been studied will shed light on whether our findings represent transient or more persistent phenomena, and also provide information on which symptoms can help us to predict those with the greatest risk of developing serious mental disorders later on.”

Background for the results

The study is entitled ‘The Danish High Risk and Resilience Study’ and this first study is called The VIA 7 study because the 522 children were seven years old when they were first examined. The participants were found via the Danish national registers as this provides the best way of recruiting a large and representative group of seven-year-old children and their parents. The children from the control group are selected so they are a match in terms of age, gender and where they live. The researchers have now moved on to studying the children for the second time, this time when they are eleven, so that this section of the study is called The VIA 11 study.

Source: Aarhus University

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