What is Schizophrenia?
Schizophrenia is a serious mental illness. The term covers a number of disorders, all with overlapping symptoms. Although an exact definition evades medical researchers, the evidence points more and more conclusively to a severe disturbance of the brain’s functioning. The causes and symptoms may differ, but all people diagnosed with having the illness have one thing in common – they have been, at least some of the time, out of touch with reality to a serious degree.
- Schizophrenia affects 1% of the world’s population.
- Some people may experience only one or more brief episodes in their lifetime.
- For others it may be a life long condition.
- The onset of the illness may be rapid with acute symptoms developing over several weeks or it may be slow developing over months or even years.
- The illness interferes with the mental functioning of a person.
- During the onset the person often withdraws from others gets depressed, anxious, develops phobias (extreme fears) or obsessions (fixations).
- First onset is usually in adolescence or early adulthood. It can develop in older people but it is not nearly as common. It occurs in all races, cultures, social classes and both sexes.
What Schizophrenia is not
- It is not a split personality
- It does not cause people to become dangerous
- It does not mean someone is intellectually disabled
- It does not mean people are addicted to drugs
What Causes Schizophrenia?
Despite extensive research it is still not understood what causes this condition.
No single cause has been identified, however a number of different factors are believed to contribute to the onset of schizophrenia in some people.
- Genetic factors: Researchers continue to look for a schizophrenia gene. However a predisposition can run in families, if a person has a parent with schizophrenia there is a 10% chance that they will develop the condition.
- Environmental factors: Possible factors include exposure to influenza or nutritional deprivation during pregnancy, or birth complications. This theory is that schizophrenia is a neurodevelopmental disorder resulting from abnormalities in the developing brain.
- Stressful events are often suggested as a cause of the illness. It is not clear whether the stress itself may be the precipitant or the result of the illness. Substance abuse may bring on an episode if a person has a vulnerability.
- Bio-chemical factors: The brain works by sending chemical messages from one part to another. When someone develops the symptoms of schizophrenia this may be due to a chemical imbalance in the brain involving some neurotransmitters perhaps sending too many or too little chemical messages.
What are the Symptoms?
Symptoms may vary between individuals. The most common ones that people experience are called positive symptoms.
- Delusions: These are strongly held beliefs that feel entirely real but are however, false. A person might have an exaggerated belief in their own importance, power, knowledge, abilities, or identity. They may feel persecuted that is they may believe that they are being attacked, harassed, cheated, spied upon or conspired against by others. Delusions may also be ideas of reference that means that false beliefs that things such as the TV or the radio are referring specifically to them.
- Hallucinations: These are experiences that are not real. Hearing voices is the most common experience and one of the symptoms that defines Schizophrenia. People may hear voices that sound like they are expressing their thoughts out loud, or they may believe that these voices are commenting on their actions. Other experiences may be seeing things or people, feeling touches, tasting or smelling things that are not there.
- Illusions: These symptoms are experiences of heightened awareness. Sounds may seem louder, colours brighter, objects closer, or another example is that a familiar voice seems different and unrecognisable.
- Thought disturbances: These may be of various kinds. A person may be easily distracted, unable to concentrate, or unable to connect their thoughts together logically. Their speech may sound jumbled, changing the subject without any obvious connection. This can often lead to the belief that someone is interfering with their mind. Thoughts may be speeded up or slowed down, a person may feel that their thoughts seem blocked or that their mind seems blank.
Other symptoms called negative symptoms include ones that may affect the emotions and behaviour of a person diagnosed with schizophrenia.
- Emotions: Emotional changes such as unexplained mood alterations may happen. Intense feelings of sadness or anger may come with no reason or warning. Blunted emotions may be present with an reduced ability or inability to feel or to express feelings. Sometimes people experience a loss of a sense of self, maybe experience a sense of unreality about who and where they are.
- Withdrawal: Becoming withdrawn may be a symptom as a person finds relating to other people difficult because of a fear, a lack of confidence or the loss of the skills required to communicate with others.
- Loss of drive: A symptom of schizophrenia often mistaken for laziness is when a person may become unmotivated, and lack enthusiasm, drive or initiative. They may be lacking in energy and interest and not seem to care about things like personal grooming or activities.
- Lack of insight: Sometimes when a person has a positive symptom they may believe that there is nothing wrong with them and deny that they are unwell.
What Treatment is Available?
The most effective treatment involves medication, support and rehabilitation in the community.
Medication works by correcting the chemical imbalance associated with the illness. Newer atypical antipsychotic medications have less side effects. They are supposed to be more effective in controlling the negative symptoms than the older ones.
While there is no known cure for Schizophrenia, the effects of the condition can be alleviated for most people with the careful use of prescribed drugs and professional and social support.
Professional support can include:
- cognitive behavioral therapy – learning to manage symptoms and prevent relapse,
- supportive psychotherapy – talking to someone and developing a supportive relationship,
- psychosocial rehabilitation – learning skills to assist in life management,
- education about the illness which also includes educating families and friends.