Schizophrenia is a severe, psychotic mental illness that is characterized by impairment in the ability to think clearly, manage emotions, make decisions, and relate to others. Additionally, it causes the affected individual to experience an abnormal interpretation of reality. People who have schizophrenia, the most chronic and debilitating of the major mental illnesses, often have challenges functioning at work, in society, at school, and in their interpersonal relationships. Schizophrenia differs in severity from person to person – some only have one psychotic break during their lifetime while others may experience a slow decline in functioning with little recovery between full-blown psychotic episodes. While schizophrenia is a chronic disorder that leaves sufferers frightened and withdrawn, with the right combination of medications and treatment approaches, it can be controlled.
Schizophrenia is a chronic, debilitating mental health disorder that affects approximately 1% of the population, or over 2 million people in the United States. It’s been estimated that 40% of people with schizophrenia are untreated each year.
Causes and Risk Factors for Schizophrenia
Researchers have not determined a single cause for the development of schizophrenia, rather it is believed to be the result of a number of genetic, physical, and environmental risk factors working together. The most commonly cited causes and risk factors for schizophrenia include:
Genetic: It’s been understood that there is a heredity component for schizophrenia. People who have a family member – notably a first-degree relative – with schizophrenia are at higher risk for developing the disorder. While schizophrenia occurs in 1% of the population, it occurs in 10% of those with a relative with the disorder. However, many people who develop schizophrenia do not have a family history of the disorder.
Physical: Researchers have found that an imbalance in the interrelated, complex, interconnected brain reactions involving dopamine and glutamate (both neurotransmitters) play a role in schizophrenia. Additionally, structures in the brain, such as the ventricles, look different in those who have schizophrenia.
Environmental: Scientists believe that prenatal exposure to toxins, maternal malnutrition, or viruses may lead to the development of schizophrenia. Additionally, birth trauma may increase the risk for developing the disorder.
- Increased immune system activation
- Psychoactive or psychotropic drug use in the teen years and young adulthood
- Death of a parent during childhood
- Parental poverty as a child
- Child abuse – sexual, physical, emotional abuse and neglect
- Being the victim of a bully
- Being male
Signs and Symptoms of Schizophrenia:
Symptoms and signs of schizophrenia tend to begin between the ages of 16 and 30; diagnosis very rarely occurs in people over the age of 45. Common signs and symptoms of schizophrenia may include:
Positive symptoms are psychotic behaviors not seen in healthy individuals. Positive symptoms – which come and go – can lead a person with schizophrenia to lose touch with reality and include:
- Hallucinations – Things a person hears, sees, smells, or feels that no one else experiences. Voices are the most common type of hallucination and may instruct a person to engage in certain tasks or caution the person of danger. Hallucinations may involve seeing people or things that are not present, smelling odors undetectable by others, and feeling certain things such as being touched in absence of a stimuli.
- Delusions – False, fixed beliefs that remain immovable even after being provided proof that the delusions are wrong.
- Thought disorders are unusual, dysfunctional ways of thinking. People who have thought disorders may make up neologisms, or meaningless words.
- Disorganized thinking, a form of thought disorder, occurs when a person has trouble organizing thoughts or connecting them in rational fashions.
- Thought blocking occurs when a person stops talking in the middle of a statement because he or she feels the though the thought had been taken from his or her head.
- Movement disorders are a spectrum of disturbed body movements. Some people may repeat certain gestures while others may be catatonic. Catatonia is a state in which a person doesn’t move or respond to others.
Negative symptoms are disruptions in normal emotions and behaviors, often hard to detect as being part of schizophrenia. Often negative symptoms are mistaken for other mental health disorders and may include:
- Speaking little even when forced to interact
- Inability to begin – and sustain – planned activities
- Flat affect
- Needing help to complete everyday tasks
- Neglecting personal hygiene
- May appear to be lazy or unwilling to help themselves
Cognitive symptoms of schizophrenia are subtle and may be difficult to identify, and often remain undetected as a feature of schizophrenia. Some of these symptoms include:
- Poor executive function, or the ability to both understand information and use it to make decisions
- Challenges focusing
- Difficulty paying attention
- Challenges in working memory, or the ability to use information immediately after learning it.
- Challenges leading a normal life
- Great emotional distress
Effects of Schizophrenia
If left untreated, schizophrenia can cause extreme physical, emotional, and behavioral problems that affect every area of the person’s life. Prompt diagnosis and adhering to a detailed treatment plan is imperative to lead a normal, happy life. Complications and effects of untreated schizophrenia may include:
- Interfamilial conflicts
- Inability to work or go to school
- Social isolation
- Being the victim of aggressive behaviors by others
- Abuse of substances such as drugs, alcohol, and prescription medication
Schizophrenia often occurs with another mental health disorder. The most common co-occurring, comorbid disorders include:
- Substance abuse
- Bipolar disorder
- Anxiety disorders
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder
- Panic disorder
- Schizotypal personality disorder
- Paranoid personality disorder