Childhood adversity (variously defined) is a robust risk factor for psychosis, yet the mitigating effects of social support in adulthood have not yet been explored. This study aimed to investigate the relationships between childhood sexual and physical abuse and adult psychosis, and gender differences in levels of perceived social support.
A sample of 202 individuals presenting for the first time to mental health services with psychosis and 266 population-based controls from south-east London and Nottingham, UK, was utilised. The Childhood Experience of Care and Abuse Questionnaire was used to elicit retrospective reports of exposure to childhood adversity, and the Significant Others Questionnaire was completed to collect information on the current size of social networks and perceptions of emotional and practical support.
There was evidence of an interaction between severe physical abuse and levels of support (namely, number of significant others; likelihood ratio test χ2 = 3.90, p = 0.048). When stratified by gender, there were no clear associations between childhood physical or sexual abuse, current social support and odds of psychosis in men. In contrast, for women, the highest odds of psychosis were generally found in those who reported severe abuse and low levels of social support in adulthood. However, tests for interaction by gender did not reach conventional levels of statistical significance.
These findings highlight the importance of investigating the potential benefits of social support as a buffer against the development of adult psychosis amongst those, particularly women, with a history of early life stress.