Schizophrenia is an often-misunderstood chronic mental health condition that affects less than 1 percent of the population.
What is schizophrenia?
Schizophrenia is a mental health disorder that changes how you interpret reality.
If you have schizophrenia, you may have thoughts, feelings, or experiences that seem real to you but aren’t apparent to others. This might include hallucinations and delusions.
You may also experience a lack of emotion or difficulty with processing thoughts.
Experts don’t yet know why some people develop schizophrenia, but they agree genetics may play a role.
Although schizophrenia is a severe mental health disorder with no cure, antipsychotic medications and psychosocial therapies can help minimize your symptoms so you can get on with your life.
It’s not a one-size-fits-all diagnosis. Doctors now agree this complex condition is a spectrum disorder.
If you’ve received a diagnosis of schizophrenia, don’t worry — the effects are manageable, as long as you get help. Plenty of treatments and therapies are available to help you deal with the condition.
Psychological health professionals used to separate schizophrenia into subtypes, depending on the symptoms. But in 2013, they redefined their approach — schizophrenia is now classified as a spectrum disorder with different combinations of symptoms.
People living with schizophrenia may experience the various symptoms to greater or lesser degrees. Symptoms typically fall into the following three categories.
These symptoms (also known as “positive” symptoms) involve what the pros call altered perceptions. In other words, they change the way you sense things. Psychotic symptoms may also include strange thoughts and behaviors.
If you’re having psychotic symptoms, you may lose your sense of reality or experience the world in a distorted way. You could experience hallucinations, meaning you see or hear things that aren’t really there.
You may also have delusions — firm beliefs not backed up by objective facts. You may feel paranoid or have an irrational fear that people want to hurt you or are “out to get you.”
These symptoms are an absence of typical behaviors, such as a loss of motivation or a lack of interest in doing the things you used to love.
You may withdraw and have trouble showing your emotions. It may feel impossible to function in a social or regular way.
Negative schizophrenia symptoms include:
- a lack of motivation
- difficulty starting and finishing activities
- a lack of willpower to shower or bathe
- a loss of interest in everyday life
- reduced emotions in your voice or facial expression
- disorganized or reduced speech
- an overall lack of emotion and responses to situations
- withdrawal from friends and family
These symptoms affect your attention, concentration, and memory. Cognitive symptoms are subtle and difficult to detect in some people, while in others they might noticeably interfere with the ability to learn and remember things.
You may also have trouble making decisions or struggle to maintain attention and focus.
Parents and health professionals may overlook early signs of schizophrenia because teenagers are often moody AF. Early schizophrenia signs could masquerade as typical teenage behavior.
In adolescents with schizophrenia, behavior changes can include:
- becoming shy and withdrawn
- isolating from their friends or family members
- changing friends frequently
- talking about strange ideas or fears
- becoming clingy with their parents
- confusing television or other fictional stories with reality
- finding schoolwork difficult
- behaving more moodily than you’d typically expect them to
- sitting and staring (known as catatonic behavior)
Schizophrenia can develop at any age, but mental health pros often diagnose schizophrenia when a person is in their late teens to early thirties.
Schizophrenia usually emerges in males anytime from late adolescence to the early twenties. Females tend to show the first signs of schizophrenia from the early twenties to early thirties.
While the condition is uncommon in children and young teenagers, it’s essential to separate typical child or teenage behavior from potential symptoms of a severe mental health issue.
Diagnosing schizophrenia is not easy — a mental health professional may need to record your symptoms for several months to diagnose the condition correctly.
They’ll need to rule out other possibilities, such as excessive LSD use, brain tumors, or other psychiatric diagnoses like bipolar disorder.
You’ll need to regularly experience two or more of the following symptoms before a mental health pro can confirm a diagnosis:
- disorganized or catatonic behavior
- negative symptoms
- speech issues
An early diagnosis can help you manage the condition and reduce episodes of psychosis. If you’re concerned about symptoms, talk with a mental health practitioner. They can tell you the next steps and manage your expectations.
Researchers haven’t yet pinpointed the cause of schizophrenia. But they believe it develops as a result of a combination of genetics, environmental factors, and physical differences in the brain.
It’s still a mystery why some people develop symptoms and others don’t.
Is it genetic?
It’s safe to say genetics are a risk factor for schizophrenia, since it can run in families. But having a family member with schizophrenia doesn’t mean you’re definitely at risk.
The relationship between schizophrenia and genetics is complex. More than 250 genetic glitches can increase your risk of schizophrenia, and it’s not the fault of a single gene either.
In 2014, researchers calculated that the risk of developing schizophrenia is 10 percent if you have a parent or sibling with the disorder. The risk could increase to 40 percent if both your parents have schizophrenia.
Because it’s such a puzzle, doctors can’t yet predict whether you’ll develop schizophrenia from your genome alone. Give it time, though. We’re in the future now.
Scientists think the combination of your genes and environment can affect how likely you are to develop schizophrenia.
For example, living in a stressful environment or without access to good nutrition and hygiene could increase your risk if you’re also genetically predisposed.
Brain chemistry or structure can also increase your risk. Doctors have found subtle differences between the brain structures, chemical messengers, brain connections, and brain circuitry of people with schizophrenia and those without.
These changes could develop before you’re born or during significant hormonal shifts like puberty.
Triggers can set off schizophrenia symptoms if you’re already vulnerable to the condition.
Stress and trauma play a significant role. Stressful life events like abuse, the death of a loved one, a job loss, or the end of a relationship could trigger schizophrenia.
If you’ve experienced childhood trauma, this could also increase your chances of developing the disorder. A 2012 study noted that children who had experienced extreme trauma could be three times more likely to develop symptoms of psychosis.
Substance use may also contribute to schizophrenia. Although drugs don’t directly cause it, certain drugs — like LSD, cocaine, and cannabis — could trigger symptoms such as psychosis in people who are already at risk.
Other drugs that can lead to psychosis include:
- synthetic cannabis
- excess amounts of some over-the-counter cold medications
In some people, alcohol use can also lead to psychosis, but in that case it wouldn’t be classified as schizophrenia.
If you’ve gotten a schizophrenia diagnosis, it may feel like you’re in a dark place.
Try to be optimistic, though, because a variety of treatments and therapies is available to help you manage your symptoms and get back to your everyday life.
These meds can help make symptoms of psychosis less frequent and less severe. You may have to take daily medication or get injections once or twice a month.
If standard meds aren’t doing the job, a mental health professional may recommend clozapine. You’ll need to have routine blood tests while taking this medication to make sure you avoid potentially serious side effects.
Antipsychotic medications can generally cause side effects like drowsiness, restlessness, or weight gain.
But even if the side effects are rough, it’s mega important that you don’t stop taking your meds without the guidance of a mental health pro. Stopping cold turkey can be dangerous and make your symptoms worse.
Psychosocial treatments can help you with the challenges of living with schizophrenia by teaching you coping mechanisms. A schizophrenia diagnosis doesn’t have to stop you from pursuing your life goals.
You may use these therapies alongside your antipsychotic medication:
- Cognitive behavioral therapy. This form of therapy can help you recognize and disrupt harmful thought processes.
- Cognitive behavioral social skills training. This type of training can help you better perceive social situations and interact with people, so you regain social function.
- Supported employment. This service helps people with serious mental health conditions get and keep jobs.
- Cognitive remediation interventions. This type of treatment can help improve memory, thought processing, and attention span through repeated practices.
You can still go to college, have a career, and form relationships with people. And people who receive regular psychosocial treatments tend to relapse or need hospital treatment less often.
It takes a village: Getting support from friends and family
You’ll likely cope better with a schizophrenia diagnosis if your close family and friends understand more about the condition’s effects. Family education can help them help you.
They’ll learn about potential symptoms of psychosis, your treatment options, and ways they can support and empower you as you learn to live with schizophrenia.
Coordinated specialty care
“Coordinated specialty care” is an umbrella term for treatment that helps people in the early stages of schizophrenia.
A team of mental health practitioners and specialists will work with you to deliver these recovery-oriented programs, which may include help managing your medication, psychotherapy, case management, job and school support, and family education.
The overall goal is to reduce your symptoms, improve your interactions at work or school, and improve your overall quality of life.
Assertive community treatment
If you’re at risk of homelessness or repeated hospitalization, you may find help through assertive community treatment. This is another form of treatment that involves working with a multidisciplinary team — those multidisciplinary teams just love to help out!
These programs provide a doctor who can prescribe medication along with team members who share caseloads, regular patient contact, and community outreach.
How to help a person you love who might have schizophrenia
People with schizophrenia need support from their family and friends. Here are some ways you can help:
- Encourage them to see their mental health practitioner regularly. You may need to remind them how treatment can help them live a fulfilling life.
- Remind them to take their medication. Unpleasant side effects may mean people stop taking their meds.
- Help them abstain from drugs and alcohol to improve their overall health and avoid possible schizophrenia triggers.
- Try to include them in social gatherings, so they don’t become isolated.
If you feel like the person you love is struggling emotionally or they express suicidal thoughts, there are ways you can help them.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a free crisis hotline available 24 hours a day, every day. Call 1-800-273-TALK (8255); en español 1-888-628-9454.
Some symptoms require urgent care. If your loved one is having suicidal thoughts or thinking about harming themselves or others, call 911 or your local emergency number or go to the nearest emergency room.
Schizophrenia is a mental health condition that affects how you think, behave, function, and feel. It also affects the people closest to you.
Scientists aren’t entirely sure why some people develop schizophrenia and others don’t. But they have discovered possible genetic links and environmental causes. More research will help us understand what’s behind the condition.
Mental health professionals can prescribe antipsychotic medications that can help with your symptoms. A variety of therapies is also available to help you and your family cope.
Although getting a diagnosis of schizophrenia can change your life, you can manage your symptoms and thrive with the correct treatment and support.