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Common questions about schizoaffective disorder

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Schizoaffective disorder is a psychiatric condition, combining the symptoms of schizophrenia and mood disorders (bipolar or depression). These symptoms – hallucinations, delusions, psychosis and episodes of mania or depression – can occur together or at different times.

Depending on the symptoms, schizoaffective disorder can be broadly defined as schizophrenia with a mood component, or a mood disorder with psychosis.

The course of schizoaffective disorder usually features cycles of severe symptoms followed by periods of improvement with less severe symptoms.

When was it first identified as a disorder?

The term schizoaffective was first used in 1933 by Jacob Kasanin and has been included in every edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), since 1952.

Is there more than one type?

Schizoaffective disorder is classified into two subtypes:

  1. Bipolar type - when a manic or a mixed episode occurs and sometimes major depression
  2. Depressive type - the illness has mainly depressive episodes.

How many people experience schizoaffective disorder?

Schizoaffective disorder is estimated to affect between 0.3% to 1.1% of people at some time in their life. This seems to be about as common as schizophrenia. Estimates suggest that as many as one in three people diagnosed with schizophrenia actually have schizoaffective disorder.

What are the common signs and symptoms?

Signs and symptoms depend on the type — bipolar or depressive type — and may include:

  • Delusions — having false, fixed beliefs, despite evidence to the contrary
  • Hallucinations, such as hearing voices or seeing things that aren't there
  • Symptoms of depression – feeling empty, sad or worthless
  • Periods of manic mood, or a sudden increase in energy, with behaviour that's out of character
  • Impaired communication – only partially answering questions, or giving answers that are completely unrelated
  • Impaired occupational, academic and social functioning
  • Problems with managing personal care, including cleanliness and physical appearance

"My diagnosis explained why I slipped out of reality, the mood swings, depression and poor concentration. It also gave doctors something to work with."

Darren

What causes schizoaffective disorder?

The exact causes of schizoaffective disorder are unclear.

A combination of factors are thought to contribute to the development of schizoaffective disorder:

  • An imbalance of the neurotransmitters  serotonin and dopamine in the brain (neurotransmitters are chemicals that help to pass on electronic signals in the brain, and control mood)
  • Genetics – an immediate family history of any mental illness, especially schizoaffective disorder, bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia
  • Variations in brain chemistry and structure
  • Environmental factors – exposure to viruses or toxins while in the womb
  • Birth defects or variations that affect brain development during childhood
  • Other risk factors that may trigger symptoms or onset are stress, and the use of psychoactive drugs.

Is it difficult to diagnose?

Schizoaffective disorder can be particularly difficult to diagnose due to its varied and overlapping symptoms. It also manifests in different ways for different people. A long term history of the person is necessary to confirm the diagnosis. 

Check out Why Schizoaffective Disorder Is So Difficult to Diagnose on YouTube by Dr Susan Wynne.

Is schizoaffective disorder curable?

There is no cure for schizoaffective disorder. However, there are treatments that can help manage symptoms. These generally incorporate a combination of medication, psychotherapy (individual and family) and life skills training (social skills training and vocational rehabilitation and supported employment).

Is schizoaffective disorder more common in men or women?

At this stage, there is conflicting evidence as to a potential gender bias.

Some resources suggest that two-thirds of people who develop the illness are women, mainly due to an increased frequency of the depressive type among females. 

While other studies state that men and women experience schizoaffective disorder at the same rate, but with men developing the illness at an earlier age.

If you are concerned about your mental health, or someone else's, you can contact the SANE Help Centre between 10am and 10pm, Monday to Friday, 1800 18 7263.

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