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July 2017

Understanding the Association Between Personality and Severe Mental Illness

Author Affiliations
  • 1Department of Psychological Sciences, University of Liverpool, Liverpool, England
JAMA Psychiatry. 2017;74(7):671-672. doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2017.0630

Interest in the association between personality and severe mental illness (SMI) has waxed and waned during the history of psychiatry.1 Early in the last century, the German psychiatrist Ernst Kretschmer argued that SMIs were extreme variants of normal personality types. In his view, a schizothymic personality was characterized by a combination of coldness and hypersensitivity and an asthenic physique (a frail and narrow build). He similarly identified a cyclothymic personality type that resembled manic depression, in which the individual was said to be prone to extreme moods, with a tendency to have a rounded pyknic build of average height with fat around the trunk. Much later, during the 1960s, the American psychologist Paul Meehl’s speculations about the genetic basis of schizophrenia launched a now vast literature on schizotypal personality traits, which have been seen as identifying a taxon of individuals who are vulnerable to psychosis2 or as part of a continuum of personality variation with schizophrenia at the extreme.3 Most studies in this field have been cross-sectional, making the interpretation of the association between personality and mental illness difficult.

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