Schizophrenia is an illness that disrupts the functioning of the human mind. It causes intense episodes of psychosis involving delusions and hallucinations, and longer periods of reduced expression, motivation and functioning. It is treatable.
- The causes are complex: genetics, your early development, substance abuse, stressful social circumstances and trauma (particularly in childhood) can increase your chances of experiencing schizophrenia.
- It’s common: worldwide, up to one in 100 people will experience schizophrenia.
- It starts young: schizophrenia most often develops between the late teens and early 30s, though it can start later, especially in women.
- Myth: ‘It’s split personality’
- Reality: Schizophrenia has nothing to do with ‘multiple personalities.’
- Myth: ‘You can “catch” it’
- Reality: Schizophrenia is not contagious.
- Myth: ‘People with schizophrenia are violent’
- Reality: People being treated for schizophrenia are no more likely to be violent than anyone else, but they are more likely to be the victims of violence.
- Myth: ‘You can just will it away’
- Reality: Schizophrenia can’t be treated by diet, exercise, prayer or willpower alone. It requires evidence-based treatment by qualified mental health professionals.
One of the main symptoms of schizophrenia is psychosis. A person experiencing psychosis finds it hard to tell what is real from what isn’t. Psychosis is often experienced in episodes — short periods of intense symptoms. The main symptoms of psychosis are:
- delusions — false beliefs that can’t be changed by evidence
- hallucinations — hearing voices or otherwise sensing things that aren’t real
- disordered thinking — muddled, disrupted thoughts and speech
- disordered behaviour — unusual, inappropriate or extreme actions.
Related: Psychosis factsheet
In addition to psychosis, there are other kinds of symptoms experienced by people with schizophrenia. These vary from person to person — not everyone experiences all of these symptoms.
Some people living with schizophrenia may also experience low motivation, lose the ability to express emotions and feel much less pleasure.
Likewise, some people experiencing schizophrenia experience cognitive deficits — problems with attention, memory, verbal skills and other mental functions.
It’s also common to experience what’s called ‘functional decline’. People with schizophrenia often find it harder to work, be social and organise their lives.
These non-psychotic symptoms tend to last longer — a long period of functional decline is part of a confirmed diagnosis of schizophrenia.
Schizophrenia frequently begins with general, hard-to-pin-down changes to someone’s thinking, emotions and behaviour. They tend to come and go, but if left untreated they get worse over time. The following are much stronger signs that something is wrong:
- preoccupation with a subject
- speech or writing that is very fast, muddled, irrational or hard to understand
- talking much less
- loss of concentration, memory and/or attention
- increased sensitivity to light, noise and/or other sensory inputs
- withdrawing from relationships or hobbies
- increased anger, aggression or suspiciousness
- decreased or disturbed sleep
- inactivity and/or hyperactivity
- behaving in a way that’s reckless, strange or out of character
- laughing or crying inappropriately, or being unable to laugh or cry
- inattention to personal hygiene
- depression and anxiety
- being unable to feel or express happiness.
If you think you or someone you know might be experiencing these changes in their thinking or behaviour now, see a doctor immediately. The best place to start is your GP.
Diagnosis & treatment
Schizophrenia takes time to diagnose: you might get a working diagnosis of schizophrenia quickly, but it can’t be confirmed until you’re experienced a month of psychotic symptoms and at least six months of functional decline. Your diagnosis might also change over time. That’s normal.
Your GP can make an initial assessment then refer you to a specialist — usually a psychiatrist — for full diagnosis and treatment.
Treatments include antipsychotic medication, specialist psychological therapies and community support programs to help with social connection, physical health, accommodation and work or school.
Treatment for schizophrenia can last 2–5 years, or even longer. During that time, your treatments may change to improve the results and reduce side-effects.
It became a journey of rediscovering myself and developing techniques to help me get well and stay well
There’s a strong public perception that people experiencing schizophrenia are likely to be violent, even though this isn’t true. Film & TV depictions of violent killers are often labelled with a false, highly damaging idea of psychosis or schizophrenia. Some people react fearfully or judgmentally when they learn a person has a psychotic illness.
Stigma hurts, but you can protect yourself against false perceptions by learning as much as you can about it from reputable sources, and by talking with other people who have experienced schizophrenia, for example on the SANE Forums.
Help for family & friends
Caring for someone experiencing schziophrenia can be frightening, frustrating and exhausting. Carers need care too — it’s okay to set boundaries for the care you can give, and to prioritise your own physical and mental health.
There are many other people out there who share your experience, and many services designed to help carers of people with mental illness. Here are a few places to find support:
- SANE’s carers’ forum, Help Centre 1800 18 72 63
- Mental Health Carers Australia (formerly ARAFMI) 1300 554 660
- Carers Australia 1800 242 636
- Carer Gateway (Commonwealth government)
- NDIS families & carers page 1800 800 110
- Young Carers
If you’re caring for someone and feeling isolated, you’ve got to reach out. You are honestly not alone, there are so many of us out there
SANE factsheets provide brief, introductory information about mental health. For more in-depth information, read SANE’s Schizophrenia guide.
This SANE factsheet is currently being reviewed by industry professionals and people with lived experience