Schizophrenia is an illness affecting the normal functioning of the brain.
It is one of a group of disorders known as psychosis. Schizophrenia affects people’s thoughts, perceptions and behaviour and interferes with their ability to function at work, school or relate to other people.
People affected by schizophrenia have one ‘personality’ not a ‘split personality’, which is a common misunderstanding of the illness.
Some people do recover completely and, with time, most find their symptoms improve. However, for many, it is a prolonged illness which can involve years of distressing symptoms and disability.
What are the symptoms?
Without treatment people with schizophrenia experience persistent symptoms called psychosis. These include some or all of the following:
- Confused thinking
When acutely ill, people with psychotic symptoms experience disordered thinking. The everyday thoughts that let us live our daily lives become confused and don’t join up properly.
A delusion is a false belief held by a person which is not held by others of the same cultural background.
The person sees, hears, feels, smells or tastes something that is not actually there. The hallucination is often of disembodied voices which no one else can hear.
- Abnormal motor behaviour
Each person may experience this symptom differently. Some people may become easily agitated while others may display childlike behaviour. Others again may find it difficult to manage the normal tasks of day-to-day life. Abnormal motor behaviour can also include catatonic behaviour which is marked by a withdrawal from one’s environment. This can include a complete lack of talking and movement.
- Negative symptoms
While less obvious, these symptoms are often more persistent and debilitating than the symptoms outlined above. Negative symptoms include being less able to experience pleasure or recall pleasurable events, and becoming less emotionally expressive.
What are the early signs that someone may be developing Schizophrenia?
There are sometimes early signs that ‘something isn’t quite right’ before a person develops a Psychosis. When these are identified, early assessment and diagnosis mean the person gets treatment and help earlier too, and this can improve the outlook when someone has Schizophrenia.
Early signs may include changes in a person’s behaviour, such as:
- withdrawing completely from family, friends and workmates. (Although it’s normal for teenagers to withdraw from their families sometimes, it’s unusual for them to withdraw from friends.)
- being afraid to leave the house, even in daylight
- not sleeping well, sleeping during the day and staying awake at night, sometimes pacing around
- becoming very preoccupied with a particular theme, for example – death, religion or politics
- neglecting appearance, personal hygiene, or neglecting parenting or housework
- deteriorating performance at school or work
- difﬁculty concentrating, following conversations or remembering things
- talking or writing about things that don’t make sense
- being extremely anxious, panicky or depressed, or suicidal
- believing that they have special powers or that they are important religious or political leaders, or scientists, when they’re not
- difficulty with expressing emotion, appearing emotionally ‘flat’
- fearing – without reason – that others are plotting against them, spying on them or following them
- believing they’re being harmed or influenced to do things against their will – by television, radio, aliens or the devil, for instance
- believing their thoughts are being interfered with, or that they can influence other people’s thoughts.
What causes Schizophrenia?
It’s thought that schizophrenia is caused by complex changes in brain functioning but the causes are not yet fully understood. There is no single cause but it usually develops in people who have a combination of genetic and environmental risk factors.
Genes are the most important risk factor for schizophrenia. People with a parent or sibling with schizophrenia have a 10 per cent chance of developing it (which means 90 percent do not develop it) whereas in the general population just 1 per cent have a chance of developing it. There is no single gene involved; rather, a number of genes may combine to increase the risk.
- Environmental factors
Even where there is a genetic risk, most people do not develop schizophrenia. It can, however, be triggered by other issues such as:
- Pregnancy and birth factors: malnutrition, serious infections in pregnancy or birth complications can increase the risk of a child developing schizophrenia later in life.
- Drug abuse: in particular, the use of cannabis, amphetamines or hallucinogens.
- Trauma and stress: people who have experienced violence, traumatic events or severe stress have a higher risk of developing schizophrenia.
- Place or season of birth or family income can also influence the risk.
How many people develop Schizophrenia?
Schizophrenia affects about one out of 100 people, and the symptoms usually begin in late adolescence or early adulthood. It is generally a long-term illness and can cause serious disability when left untreated.
How is Schizophrenia treated?
The good news is that schizophrenia is more treatable than ever before. Many people recover completely whereas others might have episodes of schizophrenia that come and go. There are a number of different treatments to help people manage their symptoms and help them to flourish in all areas of life.
Treatment should be under the care of a psychiatrist, but may involve a team of different health professionals including a doctor and psychologist. Treatments are tailored according to the needs of the individual.
Research has shown that early treatment can be more effective, before the illness has time to cause damage.
Certain medications help the brain to restore its usual chemical balance. This can help to reduce positive symptoms such as hallucinations or delusions.
- Psychological treatments
Psychological treatments can help with some of the life impacts associated with schizophrenia. Family interventions can play a valuable role in treatment and have been shown to help reduce the chance of relapse. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is increasingly used for people with schizophrenia and there is evidence to suggest it can reduce positive symptoms.
- Early intervention
Treating psychosis early can help prevent future episodes and the development of a chronic disorder. It is increasingly becoming available to young people who are displaying early signs of psychosis.
- Community support programs
This support should include information, accommodation, help with finding suitable work, training and education, psychosocial rehabilitation and mutual support groups. Understanding and acceptance by the community is also very important.
- Hospital treatment
Some people with schizophrenia need to be treated in hospital at times. A hospital admission can help when symptoms are out of control or the person is not managing at home. Although the majority of people with schizophrenia are not violent, severe symptoms can cause some people to have thoughts of suicide or harming others. If you think someone may be at risk of suicide or violence, call triple zero (000).
Schizophrenia is now more treatable than ever before, and getting help as early as possible can improve the outcome.
It’s important to get professional help to manage schizophrenia. If you or someone you know seems to be experiencing symptoms of schizophrenia, see your doctor as soon as possible. Most people require medication as the major part of treatment, but it’s important to get support in other areas too. Psychological therapy, rehabilitation and family therapy can help people to cope with their symptoms and rebuild their lives.
How family and friends can help
If someone you know has Schizophrenia learn as much about the illness as you can, find out what services and support groups are available in your area.
Encourage the person to see a doctor as soon as possible if they showing early warning signs of becoming ill. For more information the following link to Sane Australia has a wealth of information.
Source: APS, ReachOut, Mindhealthconnect, Sane