We live in an age of paranoia, says doctor

An "age of paranoia" is dawning at the start of the 21st century, a leading psychiatrist says. Dr Daniel Freeman, who has spent a decade conducting pioneering research into paranoia, believes one in four people regularly suffer irrational fears of being threatened or in danger.

Paranoia is far more common than had been suspected, and on the increase, he claims, primarily as a result of growing inequity, social (particularly urban) isolation, and a more competitive society. "These days, we daren't let our children play outside; we're suspicious of strangers; security cameras are everywhere," said Dr Freeman, from the Institute of Psychiatry at King's College London. "We seem to have entered an age of paranoia. And the indications are that things may only get worse."

Dr Freeman has developed a "virtual reality" method of diagnosing paranoia, in which participants wear headsets and respond to a simulated environment then complete questionnaires.

One factor in the "era of suspiciousness" is the increasing number of people living in cities, he says. For the first time, this year urban populations in the world outnumber rural. In 1800, just 5 per cent of people around the world were city-dwellers. By 2030, this is expected to have risen to 65 per cent.

Rates of paranoia are known to be twice as high in cities than in rural communities, said Dr Freeman. "Social bonds are much looser in cities than in smaller, rural communities where ready-made, relatively stable support networks exist," he pointed out. "Social isolation, a frequent drawback to urban life, is closely associated with paranoid thoughts. In the UK, nearly four times as many people live alone as fifty years ago. Increasing paranoia is certainly one more challenge posed by galloping urbanisation."

Unequal distribution of wealth played a major role in fostering paranoid feelings, Dr Freeman added. US research showed populations with the widest income inequalities also had the lowest levels of trust, and highest death rates. Mistrust was associated with greater numbers of deaths from cancer, heart disease and strokes. Dr Freeman also criticised the media for hyping up threats and adopting an "if it bleeds, it leads" attitude to coverage.

He makes his claims in a book, Paranoia: the 21st Century Fear, published this week by Oxford University Press.