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What is schizophrenia?

Schizophrenia is an illness affecting the normal functioning of the brain. It interferes with a person’s ability to think, feel and act. 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.

Schizophrenia can be diagnosed after someone has been unwell for six months or more, including at least one month during which they experience active symptoms of psychosis.

But not everyone who experiences psychosis will go on to develop schizophrenia. It is possible to experience a single episode of psychosis and never have the experience again.

What are the symptoms?

Without treatement 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.
  • Delusions
    A delusion is a false belief held by a person which is not held by others of the same cultural background.
  • Hallucinations
    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 causes schizophrenia?

The causes of schizophrenia are not fully understood, although it's likely to be a combination of hereditary and other factors. It's possible some people are born with a predisposition to develop this kind of illness, and that certain things — for example, stress or use of drugs such as marijuana, LSD or speed — can trigger their first episode.

How many people develop schizophrenia?

About one in a hundred people will develop schizophrenia at some time in their lives. Most of these will be first affected in their late teens and early twenties.

How is schizophrenia treated?

Treatment can do much to reduce and even eliminate the symptoms. Treatment should generally include a combination of medication and community support. Both are usually essential for the best outcome.

  • Medication
    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.

How do I find out more?

It is important to ask your doctor about any concerns you have. You can also find out more about this topic below.

Related information

Read the personal stories of people living with mental illness in People like us.

The SANE Schizophrenia DVD Kit features people who've been directly been affected by this illness talking about what has helped them.
Last updated: 24 August, 2016

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