Children of parents with mental illness have a hard road ahead of them, suggests new research presented Thursday at the International Early Psychosis Association's (IEPA) annual meeting held in Milan, Italy.

In 2013, researchers at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark established a population study of over 500 children and their parents, some with a history of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, calling it The Danish High Risk and Resilience Study, or VIA 7. Starting at the age of 7, the children’s mental, physical, and developmental health was assessed through extensive exams and questionnaires, including genetic analysis. Willing families were also regularly tracked and followed up with by the researchers.

Among other findings, the authors noted that children born to at least one parent with either disorder were more likely to have their own behavioral or mental health problems than the control group by age 7, while children of parents with schizophrenia were more likely to have motor impairments. Related research presented by many of the same authors found that both groups of kids also were less likely to be academically successful.

"Results from this first assessment in the VIA 7 study indicate that many children and families have unmet needs and problems,” said Dr. Anne Thorup, one of the project’s researchers and an assistant professor at Copenhagen, in a statement.

More specifically, Thorup and her team found that children of parents with schizophrenia scored highest on a questionnaire designed to predict someone’s risk of behavioral problems, the Child Behaviour Checklist (CBCL), compared to the other two groups, while children of parents with bipolar disorder scored higher than the control group — a pattern that held firm across most measures of mental health. The difference in the risk of motor impairments between the two groups, however, suggests that schizophrenia’s developmental origins may be different than bipolar’s, the authors said. These risks generally increased if both parents had mental illness, though only a mother’s history of bipolar disorder predicted a higher risk of poorer education.

While genetics are considered only one of the many risk factors of mental illness, the researchers hope the VIA 7 study can shine a light on how people’s genes and their early environment combine to leave them vulnerable to it.

“We plan to follow the children until age 11 years to conduct a new assessment before puberty,” said Thorup. “We do not know if the impaired children will catch up in neurocognitive areas or if their mental problems will be in remission, but since social aspects and environmental factors contribute significantly to child development and they were quite marked already at age 7 years — we are expecting similar or even worse results could be seen at age 11 years.”

They also hope to find ways to shortcircuit this cycle of illness. “At the same time, we are developing an early, integrated, specialised and family based intervention, called VIA family, to prevent or slow development of severe mental illness in individuals born to parents with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder," Thorup said. As of 2015, 424 families have remained in the study.

While the findings are still preliminary, the authors plan to soon publish them in a peer-reviewed journal.


Burton K, Jepsen J, Thorup A, et al. Motor Impairments among Children with a Familial Risk of Schizophrenia or Bipolar Disorder at the age of 7 years. The Danish High Risk and Resilience Study – VIA 7. IEPA Early Intervention in Mental Health 2016. 2016.

Ranning A, Larsen T, Agerbo E, et al. Educational achievements for children of parents with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder - a register-based, cohort study. IEPA Early Intervention in Mental Health 2016. 2016.