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What is Schizophrenia?

Schizophrenia [skit-suh-FREY-nee-uh] is a serious brain illness that interferes with a person’s ability to think clearly, communicate and relate with others, and manage emotions. The person may:

  • Lose all sense of reality
  • Hear voices or see things that don’t exist
  • Have scattered or jumbled thoughts and speech
  • Think others are trying to harm them

Schizophrenia is a chronic condition that remains for life once it begins. The illness may come and go in cycles, and can cause problems with day-to-day living.

The National Alliance on Mental Health estimates that schizophrenia affects about 1% of Americans. The illness tends to first appear in a person’s late teens to early 20s for men and late 20s to early 30s for women. However, the illness can affect anyone of any age, including children.

Some people think that all people with schizophrenia are violent and dangerous. This is not true. The vast majority of people with schizophrenia are nonviolent. With proper treatment, many people with schizophrenia find relief from their symptoms and are able to live productive, fulfilling lives.

When to See a Doctor

People with schizophrenia are often unaware that they have the illness. This can make treatment difficult. If you know someone who is experiencing symptoms that may indicate schizophrenia, contact a mental health specialist right away.

Causes

Schizophrenia is caused by an imbalance in the chemistry or other change in the brain. What causes these changes is often unknown. Schizophrenia tends to run in families. There is research to suggest that environmental factors (both physical and social) may also play a role.

Diagnosis and Tests

There is no single test that can diagnose schizophrenia. Your healthcare provider will first ask about your medical history and perform tests to rule out other medical conditions or mental health disorders that may be causing your symptoms.

To be diagnosed with schizophrenia, a person must have 2 or more of the following symptoms for at least 1 month, with troubling behavior lasting 6 months or more:

  • Delusions – false beliefs that the person believes are true
  • Hallucinations – hearing, seeing, or smelling things that don’t exist
  • Disorganized speech – jumping quickly from one topic to the other without reason
  • Disorganized or catatonic behavior – extreme manic or depressed behavior

Treatments

There is no cure for schizophrenia, but it can be managed. The goal with treatment is to manage symptoms and prevent psychotic relapses. Generally, a person with schizophrenia will need more than 1 method of treatment.

Common treatments for schizophrenia may include:

  • Antipsychotic medicines. These medicines help manage symptoms of schizophrenia such as delusions and paranoia.
  • Psychotherapy. Cognitive and behavioral therapies can help teach you or a family member to control, or manage emotions and behavior.
  • Self-help. Because schizophrenia often starts in early adulthood, support and guidance to help build life skills, complete school or training, and hold a job may be needed.
  • Support groups. Families and patients alike can benefit from sharing and learn from the successes of others.

Family support and involvement is critical during treatment. As families become educated and learn how to support and help manage their loved one’s illness, they can help prevent relapses and improve the overall mental health of the person with schizophrenia.

Prevention

There is no way to prevent schizophrenia. However, seeing a mental health specialist and following a recommended treatment plan can prevent more severe symptoms and teach ways to help manage the symptoms you may have.

Symptoms

Symptoms of schizophrenia will vary from person to person. In some cases, symptoms will take years to develop. In other cases, symptoms may develop suddenly. Common symptoms of schizophrenia include:

  • Hallucinations. These include hearing voices, seeing things that don’t exist, or smelling things that others can’t perceive. These hallucinations are very real to the person experiencing them.
  • Delusions. These are false beliefs that the person believes are true. People with delusions often have problems concentrating.
  • Disorganized thinking. People with schizophrenia often have a hard time thinking clearly or sounding logical when they talk. Although they look like they are alert, their words and sentences may not connect in a way that makes sense.

Other behaviors or symptoms of schizophrenia may also include:

  • Sudden change in personality
  • Fear that someone is going to harm them
  • Increasing withdrawal from social situations
  • Inability to sleep or concentrate
  • Emotionally withdrawn or lacking connection
  • Movements that may be fast or restless looking, or slow, like in a daze