Schizophrenia is a serious brain disorder that affects more than 1 percent of the population, according to the American Psychiatric Association. People with schizophrenia slowly lose contact with reality and often have delusions or hallucinations. There are misconceptions about this mental illness. Some people think schizophrenia is the same as a split personality but these illnesses are not the same.
Schizophrenia can occur in men and women of all ages. Men often develop symptoms in their late teens or early 20s. Women may start showing signs of the illness in their late 20s and early 30s, according to the National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI).
Schizophrenia can cause several other sometimes disturbing symptoms. These include the following.
Unorganized Thinking or Speech
This can include rapidly changing topics when speaking or using made-up words and phrases.
Some examples of this are trouble controlling impulses, odd emotional responses to situations, or a lack of emotion or expressions (coma-like daze).
Loss of Interests or Excitement for Life
This may include social isolation, or trouble experiencing pleasure, planning, or completing normal everyday activities.
The exact cause of schizophrenia is unknown. Medical researchers believe biological and environmental factors may contribute to the illness.
Imaging tests completed on people with schizophrenia often show abnormalities with brain structure. A low level of the brain chemicals that affect emotions and behavior may also contribute to this mental illness. Other risk factors for schizophrenia include:
- a family history of the illness
- exposure to toxins or a virus before birth or during infancy
- having an inflammatory or an autoimmune disease
- using mind-altering drugs
- high stress levels
There isn’t a single test to diagnose schizophrenia. A complete psychiatric exam can help your doctor make a diagnosis. You'll need to see a psychiatrist or a mental health professional. At this appointment, you’ll answer questions about your medical history, mental health, and family medical history. Your doctor will complete a physical exam, order blood work, and use imaging tests — magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or computed tomography (CT) scan — to check your brain.
Sometimes substance abuse, certain medications, and other mental illnesses cause symptoms similar to schizophrenia. Your doctor may diagnose schizophrenia if you’ve had at least two symptoms for a one-month period. One of these symptoms must include hallucinations, delusions, or disorganized speech, says the Mayo Clinic.
There’s no cure for schizophrenia. If you're diagnosed with this mental illness, you'll need lifelong treatment to control or reduce the severity of symptoms. It’s important to get treatment from a psychiatrist who has experience treating people with schizophrenia. You may also work with a social worker or a case manager.
Antipsychotic medication is the most common treatment for schizophrenia. These include typical and atypical antipsychotic drugs. Medication can stop hallucinations, delusions, and relieve other psychotic symptoms. If psychosis occurs, you may be hospitalized and receive treatment under close medical supervision.
Another treatment option for schizophrenia is psychosocial intervention. This includes individual therapy to help you cope with stress and your illness. Social training can improve your social and communication skills, and vocational rehab can provide the skills you need to return to work.
Schizophrenia is a severe mental illness that shouldn’t be ignored or left untreated. This illness increases the risk of serious complications, such as:
- self-injury or suicide
- anxiety, phobias, and depression
- alcohol or drug abuse
- family problems
Schizophrenia can also make it difficult to work or attend school. If you can’t work or support yourself financially there’s a higher risk for poverty and homelessness.
Since biological and environmental factors may contribute to schizophrenia, there's no way to prevent this brain disorder from developing. However, it’s possible enjoy a healthy, symptom-free life. Schizophrenia symptoms can go away for a while and then return. Listening to your doctor’s recommendations may improve your prognosis.
According to the UK's Royal College of Psychiatrists, for every five people diagnosed with schizophrenia, one in five will get better within five years of their first episode. It’s important that you learn about your condition, understand the risk factors, and follow your doctor's treatment plan.
Written by: Valencia Higuera
Published on Oct 20, 2014
Medically reviewed on Oct 20, 2014 by George Krucik, MD, MBA