Schizophrenia is a serious mental illness that affects an individual’s ability to think clearly, relate to others, manage emotions, and make sound decisions. The disorder is complex and considered a long-term illness. Schizophrenia affects less than 1% of the population; however, it can be debilitating to both those affected by it and their families.
What is Schizophrenia?
Schizophrenia is a disorder of the brain. When active, schizophrenia can cause a person to have hallucinations, delusions, trouble thinking, disorganized speech, and lack of motivation. However, with the proper treatment, many of those symptoms can improve significantly, and the chances of a recurrence can be reduced.
Schizophrenia is a complex mental illness, and as a result, it is often misunderstood. It is not a disorder that causes split personalities or multiple personalities. Additionally, schizophrenia doesn’t typically cause those affected by it to be dangerous or violent. It is also a misconception that people with schizophrenia often end up in hospitals or homeless. In reality, people with the disorder usually live on their own, with their families, or in group homes.
There is no cure for schizophrenia, but the disorder is constantly being researched, leading to better and safer treatments to manage it. Researchers study genetics, conduct behavioral studies, and use advanced imaging processes to observe the structure and function of the brain. There is considerable encouragement that these approaches will find new, more effective treatments for the condition.
Schizophrenia can develop in individuals at any age. However, its onset tends to occur in early adulthood. Men are more likely to develop the mental illness in their late teens or early twenties, while women typically develop it in their late twenties or early thirties. It is usually not diagnosed in people over 40 years of age or children younger than 12 years of age.
Studies show that men and women are equally as likely to develop schizophrenia and that rates are similar worldwide. People who have schizophrenia tend to have shorter life expectancy than the general population, largely due to having higher than average rates of co-occurring medical issues like diabetes and heart disease.
Despite the seriousness of schizophrenia, it is possible for those who have it to manage it and live well with the disorder.
What Causes Schizophrenia?
The exact causes of schizophrenia aren’t known at this time. However, experts have found that there are certain factors and circumstances that may contribute to someone’s likelihood of developing the condition. They suspect that schizophrenia occurs for different reasons, including the following:
- Brain development issues while in the womb
- Imbalances in the chemical signals that the brain uses for cell-to-cell communication
- Loss of connection between different areas of the brain
The most common factors that may contribute to developing schizophrenia are:
- Genetics – While schizophrenia isn’t caused by a single genetic variation, heredity does play a role in how likely a person is to develop it. Individuals who have a close relative (like a parent or sibling) with schizophrenia are about six times more likely to develop the disorder themselves.
- Brain Chemistry – Problems with particular chemicals in the brain, including the neurotransmitters glutamate and dopamine, may be a factor in the development of schizophrenia. Neurotransmitters are the chemicals that allow brain cells to communicate with one another. Neuron networks are also likely involved.
- Environment – Prenatal exposure to malnutrition or viruses, typically in the first or second trimester, has been shown to increase the risks of schizophrenia. Current research also indicates that there may be a connection between autoimmune disorders and the development of schizophrenia.
- Substance Use – Research has suggested that individuals who use mind-altering substances during their teen and young adult years may have a higher risk of developing schizophrenia. There is also growing evidence that suggests smoking marijuana increases the chances of psychotic incidents and ongoing psychotic experiences. The younger the individual and the more frequent the use, the larger the risk is.
What Are the Symptoms of Schizophrenia?
When active, schizophrenia can cause a person to lose the ability to tell what is real and what isn’t. Like other illnesses, the frequency, duration, and severity of symptoms varies from person to person. However, in people with schizophrenia, the incidence of severe psychotic symptoms often diminishes as the person ages. Taking medications inconsistently, stressful events, and using illicit drugs or alcohol can increase symptoms.
The symptoms of schizophrenia are divided into three categories, disorganized, positive, and negative:
Disorganized symptoms – Disordered and confused thinking and speech, trouble thinking logically, and sometimes abnormal body movements and bizarre behavior.
Positive symptoms (those that are abnormally present) – Paranoia, visual and audible hallucinations, and distorted or exaggerated beliefs, perceptions, and behaviors.
Negative symptoms (those that are abnormally absent) – Decreased ability to speak, initiate plans, express emotions, or feel pleasure.
Schizophrenia may also cause some cognitive problems, including difficulty with concentration, attention, memory, and educational performance.
Symptoms must persist for at least six months for a diagnosis of schizophrenia to be made. A thorough medical exam should be completed prior to making a diagnosis to rule out other neurological or medical conditions that make present similarly to symptoms of schizophrenia.
Treatment for Schizophrenia
There is currently no cure for schizophrenia. However, there are treatment options that may help patients manage it with minimal symptoms. Typically, treatment includes medications and psychological therapies. There are several antipsychotic drugs that are effective in decreasing psychotic symptoms present in the acute phase of schizophrenia. They also help lower the severity and potential for acute episodes in the future. Psychological therapies, including cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and supportive psychotherapy, may reduce symptoms, enhance functioning, and help with life skills such as improving social skills, reducing stress, and supporting employment.
The diagnosis and treatment of schizophrenia can be made difficult when individuals with the disorder also suffer from substance abuse. Unfortunately, people with schizophrenia are more likely to abuse drugs or alcohol than the general population. That may be because they are attempting to self-medicate to relieve the symptoms they are experiencing. If an individual shows signs that they are abusing or addicted to drugs or alcohol, they should seek treatment for co-occurring disorders so that both conditions can be treated at the same time.
Getting Help for Schizophrenia
Living with schizophrenia can be scary for those who have it and their loved ones. Despite the misconceptions about the disorder, there isn’t any reason to lose hope of having a happy and meaningful life if you have schizophrenia. With proper treatment, many people with the condition do just that.
If you think you may have schizophrenia or you have a loved one with symptoms, it’s important to speak to a trained therapist, psychiatrist, or mental health treatment center. You will likely be referred to a mental health provider whose job is to help you without judgment, so there is no reason to feel embarrassed or ashamed. The early diagnosis of schizophrenia can make a huge difference in helping you recover and manage the disorder.