Objective: The risk for schizophrenia in immigrants to Europe is approximately three times that of native-born populations. Discrimination and marginalization may influence the risk for schizophrenia within migrant populations. The primary objective of the present study was to determine whether the risk associated with migration was also evident 100 years ago. A second objective was to determine whether changing social stresses are associated with changes to the incidence of schizophrenia.
Method: During the first two decades of the twentieth century, the Provincial Mental Hospital was the sole provider of psychiatric services in British Columbia, Canada. Detailed clinical records have been preserved for 99.5% of 2477 patients who had a psychiatric admission between 1902 and 1913. Diagnoses were made after a detailed file review and 807 patients met DSM-IV criteria for first-episode schizophrenia, schizophreniform disorder, schizoaffective disorder, or psychosis not otherwise specified. Diagnoses had high inter-rater reliability. The incidence of schizophrenia in migrants from Britain or Continental Europe was compared with that in the Canadian-born population using indirect standardization and Poisson models.
Results: Migration from Britain or Continental Europe to Canada in the early twentieth century was associated with an increased rate of schizophrenia; IRR=1.54, (95% CI=1.33-1.78). Incidence increased over time in immigrants but not in the native-born population and this increase occurred during a period of economic recession.
Conclusions: Migration was a risk factor for schizophrenia a century ago as it is today. This risk occurred in white migrants from Europe and increased during a period of increased social stress.