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Letters, week of Aug. 7

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A link between strep and mental illness?

I was intrigued by the role strep throat (streptococcus) played in the onset of Jonah Henrikson’s Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) in Cathy Dobson’s recent story, Diagnosing Jonah.  It reminded me of the serious potential of this common bacterium.

In the 1990s, I worked in a community-based mental health program.  I was interested in the onset of my clients’ serious mental illnesses and at what point they realized they were ill.  For some clients, the feeling of being different came at a very early age – sometimes as early as age three or four.  Many of those clients believed their illnesses were genetically-based.

A second, much larger group was comprised of people whose first episode of serious mental illness came during their teenage years.  Research at the time suggested these events were triggered by factors other than genetics such as a surge in hormones, a life crisis, or the use of street drugs.

In asking my clients about their medical history, I found a surprising number of people reported they had had strep throat immediately before their first episode of mental illness. This correlation between streptococcus and the onset of a serious mental illness became less abstract when I met a set of identical twins.

One twin had the ideal life: house, spouse, graduate degree, and a great job.  The other struggled with severe schizophrenia until an early death.  In talking to both of them, I found that the twin that developed schizophrenia had had strep throat prior to the onset of his mental illness; the other had dodged the bacteria.

My study was, by no means, scientific and the information was anecdotal.  But recent research findings have mirrored the histories of my former clients.  The results of a study entitled, Autoimmune Diseases and Severe Infections as Risk Factors for Schizophrenia:  A 30-year Population-Based Study, published in the Journal of Psychiatry in 2011, concluded that “autoimmune disease and the number of infections requiring hospitalization are risk factors for schizophrenia.  The increased risk is compatible with an immunological hypothesis in subgroups of schizophrenia patients”.

This is not to suggest that everyone who encounters strep throat will automatically develop a serious illness such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) or schizophrenia.  Research does indicate, however, there is a significant correlation between streptococcus and other serious illnesses.  We would all be wise to take “really sore throats” seriously.

Kathy D. Milliken


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