Migration can be a difficult process, involving a multitude of stressors. This may make some migrants more vulnerable to mental health problems, and previous research have found migrants to be at an elevated risk for psychotic disorders, especially with visible minorities, such as people from black Caribbean and African backgrounds in the UK . In regard to bipolar disorders, however, the research is more mixed, and enquiries have rarely distinguished between bipolar disorders with and without psychotic symptoms.
A new paper from our Ph.D. student Jennifer Dykxhoorn, published today in Psychological Medicine, sheds light on whether the increased risk of psychotic disorders extends to bipolar disorder with and without psychosis. In her paper, Jen hypothesised that migrants were at elevated risk for schizophrenia and affective psychoses (such as bipolar disorder with psychotic features), but not for bipolar disorders without psychotic symptoms. Longitudinal data from almost 1.8 million Swedish residents born between 1982-1996 were collected, with differences by migrant status, age-at-migration and region of origin investigated. Consistent with previous findings , we predicted that migration during early childhood would increase the risk of being diagnosed with a psychotic disorder.
Compared with the Swedish-born population, migrants and their children were at elevated risk for all psychotic disorders. This included schizophrenia and schizoaffective disorder, where migrants and their children were, on average, twice as likely to be diagnosed. First-generation migrants were also at double the risk for other types of non-affective psychoses. Rates of bipolar disorder with psychosis were also elevated in migrants and their children by 42% and 22%, respectively, compared to the Swedish-born population. In stark contrast, migrants were up to 40% less likely to be diagnosed with non-psychotic bipolar disorders than the Swedish-born population. For second-generation migrants, risk of non-psychotic bipolar disorder was similar to Swedish-born rates.
While we predicted that migrating during early childhood would elevate risk of psychotic disorders, our findings did not support this. Instead, there was a pattern of increased risk at all ages of immigration to Sweden for psychotic disorders.. By contrast, all ages at immigration were associated with lower risk for bipolar disorder, except for those who migrated during infancy, where incidence rates were closer to the Swedish-born population.
In accordance with previous research by the PsyLife team , African migrants were at highest risk for all psychotic outcomes, including being five times more likely to be diagnosed with schizophrenia. In total, migrants from all origins (except other Nordic origin) were at elevated risk for all psychotic disorders, compared to the Swedish-born population.
Migrants are exposed to several difficulties relating to the process of migrating and the minority status. Jen’s paper found that the incidence rates for psychotic disorder and bipolar disorders (without psychotic symptoms) is largely different, with higher risk for psychotic disorders and lower risk for bipolar disorders compared to the Swedish-born population. This could suggest that the stressors of migrating and post-migration life have a specific effect on developing psychotic disorders. This is consistent with some research on the neurodevelopmental origins of psychotic and non-psychotic bipolar disorders, conveying these origins are distinct. For example, patients with schizophrenia and bipolar disorders with psychotic features are observed to have premorbid cognitive deficits, which have not been consistently found in non-psychotic affective disorders (Reichenberg et al., 2002; Trotta et al., 2014). Our research suggests further work is now required to test whether certain environmental factors impact on specific neurobiological pathways to influence the occurrence of certain types of mental health problem.
- Reichenberg, A., Weiser, M., Rabinowitz, J., Caspi, A., Schmeidler, J., Mark, M., Kaplan, Z, & Davidson, M. (2002). A population-based cohort study of premorbid intellectual, language and behavioural functioning in patients with schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, and nonpsychotic bipolar disorder. Psychiatry: Interpersonal and Biological Processes, 159, 2027-2035.
- Trotta, A., Murray, R. M & MacCabe, J. H. (2014). Do premorbid and post-onset cognitive functioning differ between schizophrenia and bipolar disorder? A systematic review and meta-analysis. Psychological Medicine, 45, 381-394.