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Friday, 7 December, 2001, 00:58 GMT
Schizophrenia 'linked to racism'
brain whole
Schizophrenia is more common in minority communities
Racism and discrimination may be contributory factors in the development of schizophrenia, according to a controversial scientific study.

The research suggests for the first time that social factors have a major effect on people from ethnic minority groups with a medical predisposition to mental illness.

The team at the Institute of Psychiatry found the rate of schizophrenia in non-white ethnic minorities was highest in those areas where this group comprised a small proportion of the population and lowest where they made up a large population.

Scientists believe the higher rate of schizophrenia in such groups may be explained by increased exposure to, and reduced protection against, stress and life events.

It's social factors at work, rather than something wrong with the brain

Professor Robin Murray, psychiatrist
They point to stress being caused possibly by overt discrimination, institutionalised racism and perceived alienation and isolation.

Reduced protection from the effects of such stresses could be due to decreased social networks or social buffers in small dispersed ethnic minority populations.

The team carried out their research on 15 electoral wards in Camberwell, south London, which has a large Afro-Caribbean and African ethnic minority population.

Professor Robin Murray, who devised the study, said: "Schizophrenia is thought to have a biological component, but what's interesting in this study is that social factors have a huge effect."

Social integration

Incidence of schizophrenia among Afro-Caribbeans and Africans in their own countries was much lower, which could be explained by the existence of greater social support networks in their own countries.

Mr Murray said: "In slightly unfamiliar situations you are more suspicious and it may push people who are a bit paranoid to become psychotic.

"It's social factors at work, rather than something wrong with the brain.

"The black population in the UK has more difficulty integrating and some of the more susceptible people are developing psychosis, where they wouldn't have done elsewhere."

This research indicates the need to look at the relationship between geographical, ethnic and mental health problems

Paul Farmer, National Schizophrenia Fellowship
Previous research suggested black people were more likely to be sectioned under the Mental Health Act and were generally over-represented in the mental health system.

Paul Farmer from the National Schizophrenia Fellowship said: "This research indicates the need to look at the relationship between geographical, ethnic and mental health problems.

"This flags up that everyone involved in mental health care needs to be responsive to the needs of local communities, however small they may be.

"If the patient centred reforms within the NHS are to work then the acid test is creating a patient centred mental health service."

The study, which is published in the British Medical Journal, collected data on all people from Camberwell suffering from a psychotic illness during 1988-97.

See also:

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