Understanding Schizophrenia

What is schizophrenia?

Schizophrenia is a mental illness that affects how a person thinks, feels, and behaves. The word literally means ‘a split mind’, which may have led to the common misconception about the illness being related to split personality.

The illness is found in all countries and racial backgrounds, and it’s estimated that around one percent of the entire global population suffer from schizophrenia in some form (there are three major sub-types of the condition).

Being one of the most debilitating and misunderstood of all mental illnesses, dealing with a person who has schizophrenia can also be extremely difficult for family members and loved ones.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms of schizophrenia can vary from one individual to the next. For some, the feelings of disassociation that come with the illness may come and go, while for others it is a lifelong condition. Symptoms usually appear between the ages of 15 and 35.

People with schizophrenia will often find it difficult to tell the difference between real and imagined experiences, to think logically, to express feelings, or to behave appropriately, making it extremely difficult for them to function in society, at work, or at school.

A common symptom is hearing voices not heard by others, or seeing things that aren’t really there. These hallucinations will often cause the affected person to feel threatened, fearful and withdrawn.

Delusions are extremely common and occur in about 90% of all people with the illness, ranging from delusions of persecution (constantly thinking people are out to get you), to delusions of grandeur (belief that you are a person other than yourself, or have special abilities or powers).

People with schizophrenia may also have trouble organising their thoughts and expressing themselves to the extent that their speech and behavior is so disorganised, it can seem frightening to others.

Importantly, people with schizophrenia may also appear perfectly responsible and in control, even when experiencing hallucinations or delusions.

What causes Schizophrenia?

While there is no definitive answer as to what causes schizophrenia, there does exist several theories.

An imbalance of the brain chemical dopamine has been raised as a possibility – while other research has shown some people with schizophrenia have small abnormalities in brain structure. However, this is not true for all people with the schizophrenia and the same abnormalities are also found in people who do not have the illness.

The dominant theory on cause is that it is most likely a combination of a genetic pre-disposition (having a family history of the illness) mixed with environmental factors. In other words, genetics can make you more likely to develop schizophrenia, and then certain environmental causes can trigger the disorder. Research suggests these environmental factors are associated with high levels of stress, and can range from prenatal exposure to a viral infection, low oxygen levels during birth or prolonged labor and premature birth, exposure to a virus during infancy, early parental loss or separation and physical or sexual abuse as a child.

How can it be treated?

While there is no cure for schizophrenia, with medication, therapy and a strong support, symptoms can be reduced significantly and the vast majority of people with schizophrenia can gain greater independence and lead fulfilling lives.

However, the outlook is best when schizophrenia is diagnosed and treated right away. So if you spot the signs and symptoms of schizophrenia in yourself, a friend or family member, seek help immediately so you can take advantage of the many treatments available to improve the chances of recovery.

Facts About Schizophrenia

o 20 percent of sufferers will require long-term, structured care.
o People with schizophrenia have a higher rate of suicide than the general population.
o The risk for inheriting schizophrenia is 10 percent in those who have an immediate family member with the illness.
o Early treatment of schizophrenia may control the illness in up to 85 percent of individuals.

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