The results of a comprehensive study conducted at the University of Haifa have shown that Holocaust survivors are at increased risk of developing schizophrenia. Prof. Stephen Levine, who undertook the study, explains: “The exposure to protracted multiple maximal physical, social and psychological adversities of the Holocaust increased the risk of survivors developing schizophrenia.”
The impact of the Holocaust on European Jews was not confined to the physical and psychological insults and suffering that they experienced during World War II. Studies of the sequel of the Holocaust, document that survivors are at risk of emotional distress and various psychiatric disorders, such as sleeping disorders. However, until now no study has examined the effect of Holocaust exposure on the risk of developing schizophrenia.
A unique study examining the effect of Holocaust exposure on the risk of developing schizophrenia was recently undertaken by Prof. Stephen Levine, Prof. Itzhak Levav Dr. Yair Goldberg of the University of Haifa; and Ms. Inna Pugachova, Ms. Yifat Becher, and Ms. Rinat Yoffe of the Ministry of Health. The study was made possible thanks to the cooperation of the Ministry of the Interior and the Ministry of Health. The study used comprehensive population-based data on 113,932 European Jews from nations where the Holocaust occurred. The population was split into two groups. The first group included people who immigrated to Israel before the Holocaust began in their country of origin, had relatives, friends or colleagues who were exposed to the Holocaust, and so were indirectly exposed to it. The second group comprised of people who immigrated to Israel after the end of the Second World War and were directly exposed to the Holocaust.
The study results showed that the group directly exposed to the Holocaust had a 27 percent higher chance of developing schizophrenia than the group indirectly exposed to the Holocaust. Furthermore, the group directly exposed to the Holocaust that was found to be at the highest risk of developing schizophrenia included people who were born during the Holocaust (namely were in the womb during it) and experienced it afterward. This group’s risk of developing schizophrenia was 41 percent higher than the group with indirect Holocaust exposure. Additionally, persons age over two with direct exposure to the Holocaust had a 26 percent higher chance of developing schizophrenia than those who were not directly exposed to it. According to the researchers, the probable disruption of normal neurological development in childhood increased the risk of developing schizophrenia. This would corroborate the hypothesis that neurological development in children is a critical period for subsequent development later in life.
“The study results are not entirely intuitive, as scholars, disagree as to the consequences of Holocaust exposure”, Prof. Levine explains. “Some researchers claim that Holocaust survivors were stronger and healthier. Selective mortality induced by the Nazis systematically murdered more vulnerable people, leaving the fittest to survive. This school of thought would anticipate that survivors would be at a reduced risk of developing schizophrenia. Conversely, other scholars have argued that irrespective of the fact that the strongest survived, protracted exposure to extreme trauma made Holocaust survivors vulnerable to developing schizophrenia. This study is consistent with the latter argument.”
The study was funded by the Claims Conference and the Israel Science Foundation, and appeared in the journal Psychological Medicine, published by the Cambridge University Press.