What Do You Want to Know About Schizophrenia?

Medically reviewed by Timothy J. Legg, PhD, CRNP on November 2, 2016Written by Valencia Higuera

Overview

Schizophrenia is a serious psychiatric 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. For example, some people think schizophrenia is a split personality. In fact, schizophrenia and split personality, properly termed “dissociative identity disorder,” are two different disorders.

Schizophrenia can occur in men and women of all ages. Men often develop symptoms in their late teens or early 20s. Women tend to show signs of the illness in their late 20s and early 30s.

Symptoms of schizophrenia

Schizophrenia can sometimes cause symptoms that are disturbing. These include the following.

Unorganized thinking or speech

A person with schizophrenia will often change topics rapidly when speaking. They may use made-up words and phrases.

Strange behavior

A person with schizophrenia may demonstrate:

  • trouble controlling impulses
  • odd emotional responses to situations
  • a lack of emotion or expressions, sometimes described as a coma-like daze

Loss of interests or excitement for life

A person with schizophrenia often loses interest in the activities of life. This may show itself in the following ways:

  • social isolation
  • trouble experiencing pleasure
  • planning events in their lives
  • completing normal everyday activities

Schizophrenia causes

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 in their brain structure. Abnormalities of brain chemicals in certain brain regions are thought to be responsible for many of the symptoms seen in schizophrenia. Researchers also believe low levels of 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

Schizophrenia diagnosis and tests

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 your appointment, expect to answer questions about:

  • your medical history
  • your mental health
  • your family medical history

Your doctor will most likely conduct the following:

  • physical exam
  • blood work
  • imaging tests, including magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or computed tomography (CT) scan

Sometimes, there can be other reasons for your symptoms, even thought they may be similar to those of schizophrenia. These reasons may include:

  • substance abuse
  • certain medications
  • other mental illnesses

Your doctor may diagnose schizophrenia if you’ve had at least two symptoms for a 1-month period. According to the Mayo Clinic, one of these symptoms must include:

  • hallucinations
  • delusions
  • disorganized speech

Schizophrenia treatments

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. Possible treatments include the following:

Medication

Antipsychotic medication is the most common treatment for schizophrenia. Medications include typical and atypical antipsychotic drugs. Medication can help stop:

  • hallucinations
  • delusions
  • psychotic symptoms

If psychosis occurs, you may be hospitalized and receive treatment under close medical supervision.

Psychosocial intervention

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.

Vocational rehabilitation

Vocational rehabilitation can provide the skills you need to return to work.

Schizophrenia complications

Schizophrenia is a severe mental illness that shouldn’t be ignored or left untreated. The illness increases the risk of serious complications, such as:

  • self-injury or suicide
  • anxiety
  • phobias
  • 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.

Schizophrenia prevention

There's no way to prevent schizophrenia from developing. Still, identifying who is at risk and how to prevent the disorder from occurring in at-risk individuals has been an important focus of researchers in recent years.

Biological and environmental factors may both contribute to schizophrenia. It’s possible to enjoy a healthy, symptom-free life. Schizophrenia symptoms can go away for awhile and then return. Following your doctor’s recommendations will improve your prognosis.

According to the Royal College of Psychiatrists, 3 out of every 5 people diagnosed with schizophrenia will get better with. To get on the road to improvement, it’s important to:

  • learn about your condition
  • understand the risk factors
  • follow your doctor's treatment plan
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