You’ve probably heard the rumors, but you may be wondering, “Exactly what is schizophrenia?”
A mental health disorder, schizophrenia occurs when individuals interpret reality in a way that’s abnormal. As a result, they may experience symptoms like hallucinations, delusions, and disordered thinking and behavior. In most cases, schizophrenia has a profound effect on a patient’s ability to function and enjoy daily life.
Although schizophrenia can occur in both adults and children, most patients develop the condition in their late teens or early twenties. The disorder is more common in men than in women, but is relatively rare overall—in fact, schizophrenia affects less than 1% of the population. However, the condition carries a 5% lifetime suicide risk, and those with symptoms should not hesitate to seek help.
Contrary to popular opinion, there’s no one “schizophrenia gene” that causes this disorder. However, schizophrenia does have a genetic component, and individuals who have a close relative (parent or sibling) with schizophrenia are 10% more likely to develop the illness themselves. If both of a patient’s parents suffer from the condition, her odds rise to 40%.
Additionally, doctors believe that conditions in the womb can affect an individual’s schizophrenia risk. Fetuses that don’t receive proper nutrition or those whose mothers took certain mind-altering drugs during the first six months of pregnancy may be more likely to develop the condition.
Further, schizophrenia may result from certain lifestyle factors and changes. The following events can trigger schizophrenia symptoms in patients who are already at risk for the disorder:
- Loss of a loved one
- Job loss or home relocation
- Divorce, separation, or break up
- Physical, sexual, or emotional abuse
More research is needed to determine the specific causes of schizophrenia and predict which patients may be at risk.
Identifying Schizophrenia Symptoms
Recognizing schizophrenia symptoms and signs is the first step to getting help. Here are some of the most common symptoms experienced by patients with this disorder, per the Mayo Clinic:
- Delusions refer to false thoughts and beliefs not based in reality. In many cases, schizophrenia patients imagine that they’re being hurt or harassed by someone or that something bad is about to happen.
- Hallucinations are a common symptom of schizophrenia and can involve any of the five senses, though auditory hallucinations occur most frequently. Patients who suffer a break with reality are said to be enduring psychosis and may also experience trouble concentrating, difficulty completing tasks, and confused thinking. It’s not uncommon for schizophrenia patients to hear voices.
- Disorganized thinking occurs when a patient’s communication ability is impaired. If speech is involved, the patient may be unable to answer questions in a way that’s clear.
- Abnormal motor behavior can affect patients’ ability to perform tasks or follow instructions. Some people with schizophrenia display silly or childlike symptoms, such as sitting in strange poses or displaying excessive movement.
- Negative symptoms vary by patient but include hygiene problems, lack of emotions, and withdrawal from social situations.
In the past, certain patients were characterized as suffering from paranoid schizophrenia. However, in recent years, the American Psychiatric Association has determined that paranoia is one of the principal symptoms of the disorder as opposed to a distinct condition.
While the symptoms of schizophrenia can seem frightening, it’s important to realize that most patients do get better. According to HelpGuide.org, for every five schizophrenia patients, one will see significant improvement within five years and three will get better but still suffer recurrences.
Treatment for Schizophrenia
Still, treating schizophrenia is not a simple matter, and patients often require continuing care even after initial symptoms have subsided. Most schizophrenia patients benefit from both medication and outpatient therapy, but in some cases, hospitalization may be necessary.
Patients with schizophrenia typically receive treatment from psychiatrists, psychologists, and social workers. Doctors may prescribe antipsychotics, which control dopamine in the brain in order to reduce hallucinations and delusions. Some of the more commonly prescribed drugs include Thorazine, Modectate, and Haldol.
It’s important to realize that schizophrenia drugs can cause serious side effects. Patients who take these medications may experience tics and other uncontrollable movements, weight gain, high cholesterol, drowsiness, and feelings of restlessness.
Therapy is also crucial in the treatment of schizophrenia. Many patients undergo solo, group, and family therapy with a goal of helping them care for themselves and participate in daily activities. Studies show that supportive care can greatly reduce the rate of relapse among people with this condition. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) can help patients reduce their suffering while increasing their ability to deal with periods of psychosis.
Further, schizophrenia patients may benefit from altering their diet. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, taking omega-3 fatty acids can help treat schizophrenia and other mental health conditions.