Schizophrenia is a chronic psychiatric disorder. People with this disorder experience distortions of reality, often in the form of delusions or hallucinations.

Although exact estimates are difficult to obtain, schizophrenia affects less than 1 percent of the population.

Misconceptions about this disorder are common. For example, some people think schizophrenia creates 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 in their late 20s and early 30s.

Here’s what you need to know about this mental health condition.

Symptoms of schizophrenia may include the following:

Early symptoms

Symptoms of this disorder commonly show up in the teenage years and early 20s. At these ages, the earliest signs may get overlooked because they mirror certain “typical” adolescent behaviors.

Early symptoms can include:

  • isolating oneself from friends and family
  • changing friends or social groups
  • a change in focus and concentration
  • sleep problems
  • irritability and agitation
  • difficulties with schoolwork, or poor academic performance
  • anxiety
  • vague suspiciousness
  • odd ideas
  • feeling different from others

When it comes to more advanced symptoms, these tend to fall into three distinct categories: positive symptoms, negative symptoms, and disorganized symptoms.

The terms “positive” and “negative” have different connotations here: “Positive” symptoms mean added thoughts or actions to one’s typical experience. “Negative” symptoms are the absence of typical behaviors.

Positive symptoms

“Positive” symptoms of schizophrenia aren’t typical in individuals without schizophrenia or other types of severe mental illness. These behaviors include:

  • Hallucinations. Hallucinations are experiences that appear real but are created by your mind. They include seeing things, hearing voices, or smelling things that others around you don’t experience.
  • Delusions. A delusion occurs when you believe something despite evidence or facts to the contrary.
  • Paranoia. Paranoia is when someone is unusually distrustful of others, or firmly believes they are being followed or persecuted.

Negative symptoms

Negative symptoms of schizophrenia interrupt a person’s typical emotions, behaviors, and abilities. These symptoms include:

  • reduction in speaking
  • odd emotional responses to situations
  • a lack of emotion or expressions
  • loss of interest or excitement for life
  • social isolation
  • trouble experiencing pleasure
  • difficulty beginning or following through with plans
  • difficulty completing normal everyday activities

Cognitive symptoms

Sometimes referred to as “cognitive” symptoms, these symptoms are labeled as such because they illustrate that someone is having trouble with certain cognitive or mental functions. They include:

  • disorganized thinking or speech, such as when a person changes topics rapidly when speaking or uses made-up words or phrases
  • forgetfulness
  • disorganized thinking, such as trouble focusing or paying attention
  • poor “executive functioning,” or understanding information and using it to make decisions
  • problems learning information and using it

Symptoms of schizophrenia can vary in severity and type, and may be exasperated if an individual is experiencing heightened stress, using substances, or is not taking their prescribed medications correctly.

The exact cause of schizophrenia is unknown. Medical researchers believe several factors can contribute, including:

  • biological
  • genetic
  • environmental

Research currently suggests that imaging tests completed on people with schizophrenia may show abnormalities in certain brain structures. Ongoing research in this area continues.

Risk factors

Even though it’s still not known what causes schizophrenia, researchers believe genetics may play a role. People with a family history of schizophrenia have a higher risk of developing this disorder.

Other risk factors for schizophrenia may include:

  • exposure to toxins, a virus, or malnutrition before birth or during infancy
  • using mind-altering drugs
  • living in a highly stressful situation
  • taking mind-altering drugs in adolescence or young adulthood

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

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.

There isn’t a single test to diagnose schizophrenia. A complete psychiatric exam can help a doctor make a diagnosis. You’ll need to see a psychiatrist or mental health professional.

At your appointment, expect to answer questions about your:

  • medical history
  • mental health
  • family medical history

Your doctor may conduct the following:

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

  • substance use
  • certain medications
  • other mental illnesses

Your doctor may diagnose schizophrenia if you’ve had at least two symptoms for a 1-month period. These symptoms must include:

  • hallucinations
  • delusions
  • disorganized speech

There’s no cure for schizophrenia. Current treatments focus on managing or reducing the severity of symptoms.

It’s important to get treatment from a psychiatrist or mental health professional who has experience treating people with this disorder. You may also work with a social worker or a case manager, too.

Possible treatments include the following:

Medications

Antipsychotic medication is the most common treatment for schizophrenia. Medication can help manage:

  • hallucinations
  • delusions

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 you with the skills you need to return to work. It may make maintaining a regular job easier.

Family support and education

If you or someone you care about has been diagnosed with schizophrenia, having support from family and friends can help lower stress and create a feeling of inclusion. There are educational programs available for family members that can help everyone spot the symptoms and provide support when needed.

A good place to start is the National Alliance on Mental Illness’s support and education page.

A diagnosis of schizophrenia is common in people in their teens and early 20s. Although less common, it can begin earlier. When symptoms occur before the age of 13, the condition is sometimes called early-onset or childhood schizophrenia.

Diagnosing this condition is difficult. Behavior changes aren’t unusual as children and teens develop. Plus, some of the most common symptoms of this mental health disorder also show up in other conditions. These include:

Symptoms of childhood schizophrenia include:

  • unusual fears or anxieties (paranoia)
  • sleep problems
  • emotional swings
  • hearing voices or seeing things (hallucinations)
  • decreased attention to self-care
  • sudden changes in behavior
  • deterioration in academic performance
  • odd beliefs or thinking

It’s important to separate the behaviors that may occur in growing children and teenagers with symptoms of a serious mental health condition. However, if you are concerned that your child has acquired some new, worrying behaviors, it’s essential to talk with a mental health professional as soon as you can. No matter what the issue is, a professional can support you to make the best decision for your family.

Schizophrenia and psychosis may be confused for one another, but they’re not the same. One is a mental health condition — the other is a symptom or group of symptoms.

Psychosis is one element or symptom of several mental health disorders, including schizophrenia. Psychosis can also occur in people with no other symptoms of mental health issues.

Although psychosis can occur in people with schizophrenia, not everyone with this disorder will experience psychosis. If you or someone you know is experiencing symptoms of psychosis, seek treatment immediately.

Schizophrenia and bipolar disorder are both chronic mental health conditions. They may share some characteristics, but there are distinct differences.

Bipolar disorder causes strong shifts in mood. These swings switch between mania and depression.

During these episodes, it’s possible that someone with bipolar will experience hallucinations or delusions, especially in a manic episode. Experiencing psychosis along with mood shifts may make completing everyday tasks harder.

Likewise, people with schizophrenia may experience hallucinations or delusions, but they’re also very likely to experience disorganized thinking and speech. Unlike someone with bipolar disorder in the manic phase, the symptoms of psychosis aren’t accompanied by mania.

No medical test can determine which condition you have. Instead, your doctor may refer you to a mental health professional who will perform a comprehensive psychiatric evaluation and order some tests to help rule out possible medical causes. These tests could include blood tests, imaging tests, and drug screening tests.

While a schizophrenia diagnosis can come with an increased risk of mortality due to co-occurring conditions and the risk of suicide, proper treatment can help an individual live a productive and happy life.

Like many chronic illnesses, the prognosis depends on a lot of personal factors, including how early a diagnosis was made, how much an individual is able and willing to follow a treatment plan, and the support system they have.

Suicide prevention

  1. Call 911 or your local emergency number.
  2. Stay with the person until help arrives.
  3. Remove any guns, knives, medications, or other things that may cause harm.
  4. Listen, but don’t judge, argue, threaten, or yell.
  5. If you or someone you know is considering suicide, get help from a crisis or suicide prevention hotline. Try the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.

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

Schizophrenia symptoms can go away for a while and then return, but it’s possible to enjoy a healthy, symptom-free life. 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 treatment. 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

If you are looking for information on programs that provide services for the assessment and treatment of early signs of psychosis or schizophrenia, you can look for a facility near your location using the Substance Abuse and Mental health Services Administration’s Early Serious Mental Illness Treatment Locator, and the Early Psychosis Intervention Network (EPINET) Clinics locator.

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