Apparently, teens are no strangers to having mild psychotic experiences such as delusional thoughts or moderate feelings of paranoia, according to doctoral research by Hanneke Wigman of The Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research.
According to Wigman, there are five kinds of mild psychotic experiences: hallucinations, delusions, paranoia, megalomania and paranormal convictions. About 40 percent of the nearly 7,700 Dutch adolescents aged 12 to 16 years reported that they often have such experiences.
Some examples of mild psychotic experiences include hearing voices, feeling that thoughts are being taken out of your head or the feeling that others are acting differently from what they are. The episodes are milder than those in psychosis.
Wigman compared the frequency of these self-reported experiences in teenagers (12-16 years) and adult women (18-45 years). The results showed that about 40 percent of the teens regularly experience at least one of the five types of psychotic experiences, compared to only 2 percent of the adult women. The researcher also compared differences between teen boys and teen girls. Megalomania (delusional or inflated sense of self-esteem) was reported more often by boys than girls, while hallucinations, paranoia, delusions and paranormal convictions were reported more often by girls.
“Adolescence is a period in which feelings of uncertainty play a role. Young people become more aware of themselves and are often sensitive [to] their changing social environment. That makes them more susceptible to paranoid thoughts and observations, for example,” said Wigman.
Teens find it more difficult to differentiate between important and unimportant internal and external stimuli. This means they may be more susceptible to hallucinations.
“Some young people have many such experiences at the start of adolescence that decrease later in adolescence, but there are also young people who experience it the other way round,” said Wigman.
For most teens, mild psychotic experiences are fleeting in nature. According to the researcher, there is no reason to panic. “But,” says Wigman, “if the symptoms persist or other symptoms develop in conjunction with these then help should be sought.”
This is because the researcher found that under certain conditions, such as cannabis use, the bottling up of problems, genetic susceptibility or a traumatic event, psychotic experiences can continue, leading to a greater risk for psychosis or depression at a later age.
During her research, Wigman developed a better understanding of those teens who have persistent mild psychotic experiences but still belong to the average population (never admitted to a clinic, for example).
This group of adolescents has not received a significant amount of attention in past research on psychosis. Previously, researchers had focused on people with a “particularly high risk” of developing psychosis or those who had already experienced one or more episodes.
A stronger focus on intervention in individuals with persistent psychotic experiences could lead to the postponement or even prevention of psychosis at a later age.