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Childhood abuse and psychotic experiences in adulthood: findings from a 35-year longitudinal study

  • Caroline J. Bell (a1), James A. Foulds (a2), L. John Horwood (a3), Roger T. Mulder (a4) and Joseph M. Boden (a5)...

The extent to which exposure to childhood sexual and physical abuse increases the risk of psychotic experiences in adulthood is currently unclear.


To examine the relationship between childhood sexual and physical abuse and psychotic experiences in adulthood taking into account potential confounding and time-dynamic covariate factors.


Data were from a cohort of 1265 participants studied from birth to 35 years. At ages 18 and 21, cohort members were questioned about childhood sexual and physical abuse. At ages 30 and 35, they were questioned about psychotic experiences (symptoms of abnormal thought and perception). Generalised estimating equation models investigated covariation of the association between abuse exposure and psychotic experiences including potential confounding factors in childhood (socioeconomic disadvantage, adverse family functioning) and time-dynamic covariate factors (mental health, substance use and life stress).


Data were available for 962 participants; 6.3% had been exposed to severe sexual abuse and 6.4% to severe physical abuse in childhood. After adjustment for confounding and time-dynamic covariate factors, those exposed to severe sexual abuse had rates of abnormal thought and abnormal perception symptoms that were 2.25 and 4.08 times higher, respectively than the ‘no exposure’ group. There were no significant associations between exposure to severe physical abuse and psychotic experiences.


Findings indicate that exposure to severe childhood sexual (but not physical) abuse is independently associated with an increased risk of psychotic experiences in adulthood (particularly symptoms of abnormal perception) and this association could not be fully accounted for by confounding or time-dynamic covariate factors.

Declaration of interest


Corresponding author
Correspondence: Caroline Bell, Department of Psychological Medicine, University of Otago, Christchurch, PO Box 4345, Christchurch 8140, New Zealand. Email:
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Childhood abuse and psychotic experiences in adulthood: findings from a 35-year longitudinal study

  • Caroline J. Bell (a1), James A. Foulds (a2), L. John Horwood (a3), Roger T. Mulder (a4) and Joseph M. Boden (a5)...
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