Nightmares and a Link to Mental Illness
I saw a very interesting article in news from the BBC recently that says that if a child suffers from regular nightmares this might be an early warning sign of psychotic disorders that could develop in later life.
The study, by UK researchers said that while most children will have nightmares from time to time, if the nightmares persist it could be an indication of something more serious. Nightmares accompanied by what are called ‘night terrors’ were also an indication of increased risk.
Commenting on the study, the charity YoungMinds said it was important research that may help people detect the early signs of mental illness.
Almost 7000 people were followed up to the age of 12 and parents were regularly asked about any sleep problems in their children. Then at the end of the study the children were assessed for psychotic experiences such as hallucinations, delusions and thinking their thoughts were being controlled.
The study showed that the majority of children had nightmares at some point, but in 37% of cases, parents reported problems with nightmares for several years in succession. One in 10 of the children had night terrors, generally between the ages of three and seven.
The team at the University of Warwick said that a long-term problem with nightmares and terrors was linked to a higher risk of mental health problems later. The findings were that around 47 in every 1,000 children had some form of psychotic experience. Those having nightmares aged 12, it was found, were three-and-a-half times more likely to have problems and the risk was nearly doubled by regular night terrors. One of the researchers, Prof Dieter Wolke, told the BBC, who reported the story, that nightmares are relatively common, as are night terrors, but that it had been observed that if they did persist then there might be something more serious although the relationship between sleep problems and psychosis is not clear. One theory is that bullying or other traumatic events in childhood might cause both symptoms.
Another alternative is that the way some children's brains are wired means the boundaries between what is real and unreal, or sleeping and wakefulness, are blurred. What this means that treating the sleep issues may not prevent psychotic events.
Prof Wolke did say that a regular routine and quality sleep were the key to tackling nightmares and that children should have more regular sleep, avoid anxiety-promoting films before bed and not use a computer or have other stimulation at night.
Night terrors occur at specific points during sleep and can be managed by briefly waking the child. Lucie Russell, the director of campaigns at YoungMinds, said that this had been a very important study because anything that could be done to promote early identification of signs of mental illness was vital to help the thousands of children that suffer. As early identification of a problem could help to lessen the chance of problems becoming entrenched in adulthood, this study is an important one.
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