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Introduction:Recent models of psychosis implicate stressful events in its etiology. However, while evidence has accumulated for childhood trauma, the role of adult life events has received less attention. Therefore, a review of the existing literature on the relationship between life events and onset of psychotic disorder/experiences is timely. Methods: A search was conducted using PsychInfo, Medline, Embase, and Web of Science to identify studies of life events and the onset of psychosis or psychotic experiences within the general population. Given previous methodological concerns, this review included a novel quality assessment tool and focused on findings from the most robust studies. A meta-analysis was performed on a subgroup of 13 studies. Results: Sixteen studies published between 1968 and 2012 were included. Of these, 14 reported positive associations between exposure to adult life events and subsequent onset of psychotic disorder/experiences. The meta-analysis yielded an overall weighted OR of 3.19 (95% CI 2.15–4.75). However, many studies were limited by small sample sizes and the use of checklist measures of life events, with no consideration of contextual influences on the meaning and interpretation of events. Conclusions: Few studies have assessed the role of adult life events in the onset of psychosis. There was some evidence that reported exposure to adult life events was associated with increased risk of psychotic disorder and subclinical psychotic experiences. However, the methodological quality of the majority of studies was low, which urges caution in interpreting the results and points toward a need for more methodologically robust studies.
Recent models of psychosis implicate social adversity, broadly defined, in its etiology.1,2 However, while evidence has accumulated for childhood trauma,3,4 the role of adult life events has received less attention. Life events are situations or occurrences that bring about a positive or negative change in personal circumstances and/or involve an element of threat (examples provided in onlinesupplementary material 1). As a basis for further research, it is important to evaluate existing research on life events and psychosis, both in terms of substantive findings and methodological issues. This review focuses on the impact of adult life events on risk of both onset of psychotic disorder and subclinical psychotic experiences in general population samples.
A recent review by Fallon5 evaluated studies that used semi-structured interview measures to assess exposure to life events in psychosis patients. Because the literature in this area is still fairly small, a more extensive, systematic, and updated review of the literature was considered to be the most appropriate strategy to better understand the association between adult life events and psychosis. Given previous concerns about the methodological quality of studies of life events and psychosis,5 a quality assessment tool was devised to evaluate the selected studies. This review focuses on the most robust studies.
A systematic search of relevant databases was conducted using predefined search terms (see onlinesupplementary material 2). Studies were included if (a) they assessed life events in adulthood, (b) the individuals were over 16 years, (c) the individuals had a first episode of psychosis or subclinical psychotic experiences, and (d) they were published in English in peer-reviewed journals. Studies were excluded if (a) they assessed childhood events only and (b) no distinction was made between childhood and adulthood in timing of exposure. Adulthood was defined as aged 17 years. Each study was assessed using a quality assessment tool (see onlinesupplementary material 3). A cutoff score of at least 10 out of 14 (over 70%) was chosen to select the more “methodologically robust” studies. Although this may be arbitrary and risks leaving out any study that scores high on some and low on other criteria, it does ensure consideration of only the most consistently robust studies.
Sixteen studies published between 1968 and 2012 met the inclusion criteria (supplementary material 4), a surprisingly small number. Eleven were studies of clinical samples (6 of first-episode cases and 5 of mixed first- and non-first-episode cases) and 5 of general population samples (tables 1–3). Fourteen studies reported a positive association between adult life events and onset of psychotic disorder or occurrence of subclinical experiences. Within the clinical studies, cases with psychosis were over 2 times6 to 8 times7 more likely to report life events compared with controls in the period leading up to onset. In the general population studies, those with psychotic experiences (vs those without) were between 2 times8 and 7 times9 more likely to report recent life events.
The picture is the same when only those studies6,10–15 that received a quality score of 10 or above (n = 7) are considered, ie, 6 studies6,11–15 reported some evidence that the number and/or severity of events was associated with around a 3- to 5-fold increased risk of psychosis.
The majority of these more robust studies found life events were elevated prior to onset of psychosis, with the time period under consideration ranging between 3 months12 and 3.6 years.15 The seminal article of Brown and Birley,12 eg, found life events were increased in the 3-week period pre-onset of psychotic symptoms. The sample, however, was small (n = 50, 13 of whom were non-first-episode), and no subsequent studies have reported similar findings. Later studies suggest that life events may exert their influence over a longer period. For example, 2 studies11,13 of disorder found life events were around 2–3 times higher in cases compared with controls across a 1-year period. Further, a general population study15 of 1722 young adults found that exposure to life events over the previous 3 years was associated with an increased risk of psychotic experiences.
Some studies assessed other contextual elements of events, such as their severity and type. In a study of 97 cases (35 first episode) and 207 controls, Bebbington et al14 found that moderate and severe life events (vs mild) were higher in the 3-month period pre-onset in patients with schizophrenia (ie, 52% cases with moderate/severe events vs 10% controls).
More specifically, using a sample of 41 first-onset patients, Raune et al6 found that intrusive events, such as a physical assault or invasive operation, were more likely to be associated with an increased risk of psychosis and were most common in the 3 months pre-onset (ie, 34% cases vs 3% controls). However, for these analyses, the control sample was taken from 2 studies16,17 conducted 20 years previously.
Others have found evidence for specific effects for certain types of events. Dohrenwend et al,13 eg, in a sample of 66 schizophrenia cases (21 first onset) and 197 population-based controls, found physical illness and injury (akin to intrusive events) were around 2 times more common in cases than controls.
One way of clarifying the causal relationship between events and onset is to distinguish events that are independent of emerging symptoms, eg, death of a close relative, from those which may be influenced by mental state, eg, interpersonal conflict.
Five of the more robust studies6,11–14 distinguished between possibly dependent and independent events. For example, Brown and Birley12 found 46% of cases were exposed to recent independent events compared with 14% of controls. More recent research suggests similar conclusions.6,11,14 Raune et al,6 eg, found that almost all cases (95%) experienced a life event 1 year prior to the development of symptoms, and that in 76%, these event(s) were independent. These authors also found that cases were 2 times more likely to report independent life events in the 3 months pre-onset than controls (34% cases vs 14% controls).
In contrast, Dohrenwend et al13 did not find any increase in independent events prior to onset. However, they did find a higher number of “non-fateful” events (a similar concept to dependent events, ie, events that are influenced by prior mental state and personality characteristics, such as relationship difficulties) in the year prior to onset.
Additionally, we carried out a meta-analysis of a subset of 13 studies in which the number exposed and not exposed to life events had been reported7–9,10,11–15,18–20 (see onlinesupplementary material 5 for more detail).
The meta-analysis yielded an overall weighted OR of 3.19 (95% CI 2.15–4.75), which suggests that individuals with psychotic disorder/experiences are roughly 3 times more likely than controls to be exposed to recent life events (figure 1). The OR from the clinical samples6–8,10–14,18,19 are higher than the general population studies,9,15,20 but this was not statistically significant. There is substantial heterogeneity between studies (Higgins’ I 2 = 87.27% [95% CI 70.34%–96.36%]). The heterogeneity was not removed by meta-regression using any of the 4 possible moderators (year of publication, life events period, quality score, and type of sample, ie, clinical or general population), possibly due to rather restricted variability on all of them.
Across all studies, there were a number of common methodological issues that merit specific consideration. First, the majority of studies were cross sectional, introducing potential recall bias and limiting inferences concerning direction of causation. In relation to psychotic disorder, it is difficult to envisage longitudinal studies being feasible, given the low incidence of disorders. Consequently, efforts to minimize recall bias and carefully date exposure to events and onset of disorder are essential but were rarely made.
Further, not all the studies in this review included a comparison group, and, of the 10 that did,6,7,10–14,18,19,22 not all drew controls from the same populations as cases. Bias in selection of comparison group(s), therefore, cannot be excluded.
Within the clinical studies, causal interpretations are limited by the small number of first-episode only samples and by the failure of papers based on mixed samples to report findings specifically for first-episode cases. This noted, both types of study in the main reported positive associations. It is clear that more first-episode studies are needed, which utilize appropriate control groups and objective ratings of the impact of events.
Differences in life events measurement make comparisons between studies difficult and this may account for some of the variations in findings. Instruments to assess life events generally fall into 2 categories: checklist or semi-structured interview. The Life Events and Difficulties Schedule23 (LEDS) is considered the gold standard as it takes account of context, eg, timing, severity, and independence of events. It is, however, time consuming to administer and rate. Of the studies reviewed, 4 used checklists8,9,20,24, 2 used a checklist that was interviewer administered10,18, and 10 used semi-structured interviews,6,7,11–15,19,21,22 of which 46,11,12,14 used the LEDS.23 Of these latter studies, 3 studies6,12,14 found positive associations between recent life events and psychosis onset.
Where the severity of life events was evaluated, this was mainly determined using objective criteria and not based on subjective appraisals. This is because subjective perceptions of severity may be affected by mood and mental state, which would then risk confusing exposure and outcome and make it impossible to distinguish cause and effect.
Although most of the assessments of life events used in the reviewed studies do enquire about positive events, only one of the studies drew a distinction between positive (desirable) and negative (undesirable) events in their analyses,22 finding associations only for negative events and psychosis. No study specifically discussed the valence of events in relation to psychosis onset.
Finally, adjustment for potential confounders was inconsistent. Where adjustments were made, the majority controlled for age, gender, and ethnicity, with some controlling for a wider range of factors, such as urbanicity, education, IQ, substance use, comorbid neurosis,8 and past year cannabis use.9 No study adjusted for childhood adversity.
There were 3 main findings: (a) the literature on adult life events and psychosis onset is surprisingly small (only 16 studies spread over 44 years); (b) most studies suggest the number of events prior to onset is higher (compared with a comparison group) in those with psychosis or psychotic experiences, with our meta-analysis suggesting around a 3-fold increased odds of life events in the period prior to psychosis onset; and (c) more tentatively, there are some indications that intrusive events may be particularly relevant to the development of psychosis. These findings noted that much of the existing research is methodologically limited, and this necessarily urges caution in drawing any inferences about the etiological role of life events in psychosis.
Interest in the role of life events in the onset of psychosis has fluctuated in the time since Brown and Birley’s seminal study.12 In recent years, there has been a resurgence of interest in the role of social factors in psychosis etiology. Within this context, it is important to revisit the question of whether exposure to proximal stressors (ie, life events) increases risk of psychosis. The literature is suggestive but too weak to permit firm conclusions.
The suggestion that life events may increase risk is nonetheless strengthened by the emergence of plausible mechanisms that may account for how exposure to external stressors can impact on individuals in ways that increase risk for psychosis. For example, drawing from cognitive models of psychosis, it is possible that exposure to, say, threatening and intrusive events influence how individuals appraise their social worlds, perhaps leading to hostile perceptions of the external world.1 Repeated exposure may contribute to pushing some along a continuum from suspiciousness to paranoia to persecutory delusions. More biologically, there is now evidence of hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis dysregulation in psychosis. Stress-induced dysregulation of the HPA axis may subsequently give rise to increased dopamine receptor densities and dopamine release,25 mirroring dopaminergic abnormalities commonly thought to be present in psychosis. The association between adult life events and psychosis may also be influenced by genetic susceptibility, be it as a result of an underlying variation in DNA sequence or because of epigenetic variation in gene expression.
In sum, there is evidence to suggest adult life events may be relevant to the onset of psychosis for some, and there are plausible mechanisms through which such exposures may work. However, the existing literature is disparate and methodologically weak. To more fully understand the nature of the link, if any, between life events and psychosis, there is a need for a new generation of studies that pay close attention to careful assessment of events, that include robust comparison groups, and that seek to minimize the inherent recall and selection biases. Exposure and responses to life events are potentially modifiable, and a better understanding of how they impact on risk of psychosis may inform strategies for prevention and early intervention.
Wellcome Trust (WT087417); the European Union (European Community’s Seventh Framework Program [HEALTH-F2-2009–241909]: Project EU-GEI); and the UK Department of Health via the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Specialist Biomedical Research Centre for Mental Health award to the South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust (SLaM) and the Institute of Psychiatry, King’s College London. Economic and Social Research Council PhD studentship (to S.B.); UK Medical Research Council Population Health Scientist award (G1002366 to H.L.F.).
We would like to thank Professors Paul Bebbington, Bruce Dohrenwend, Tom Craig, and Inez Myin-Germeys for their assistance with searching for additional studies. We also thank Assistant Professor Johan Lataster for providing additional data and clarification. All authors declare that they have no conflicts of interest in relation to the subject of this study.