People with schizophrenia are not mad, bad and dangerous to know - in fact, one in a hundred people experience schizophrenia. Find out more about schizophrenia, its causes and what can be done to help.
What is schizophrenia?
Schizophrenia is the most commonly diagnosed major mental health problem. It is known as a psychotic illness because, at times, you might be unable to distinguish between your own intense thoughts and reality. You may have little insight into the illness, and not recognise that you are ill. Schizophrenia is a serious mental illness, and although there is no cure as yet, it can be treated with drugs, and people can be supported by health and social services.
What are the symptoms?
Schizophrenia can affect you in a variety of ways; doctors often distinguish between positive and negative symptoms. Positive symptoms are features of the illness itself - you might experience delusions; unshared beliefs that you are a famous person, or that others are controlling your thoughts. You may have hallucinations; hearing voices in your head telling you what to do. You could have paranoia; doubting other people's actions and motivations, feeling that people are out to get you. At times you might be unable to make sense of your thoughts and feel confused, anxious and distressed. Negative symptoms are the ways that the illness affects your everyday life; you may feel withdrawn and apathetic and be unwilling to meet friends. You could lose the motivation to take part in activities you used to enjoy. You might show little emotion or be unwilling or unable to engage in conversation.
Who experiences it?
About one in a hundred people are diagnosed with schizophrenia. Symptoms can start at any age, but you are most likely to develop the illness as a young adult between the ages of 20 and 30. It affects men and women equally, but young men tend to be diagnosed at a slightly earlier age than women. It is estimated that around one third of people diagnosed with schizophrenia respond well to treatment and only experience one episode of illness; another third may have occasional schizophrenic episodes, while the other third may have to live with schizophrenia as a long-term illness.
What causes it?
No-one knows for sure what causes schizophrenia. It appears to be caused by a combination of factors that can be different from person to person. Suggested causes include: genetics; changes in brain chemistry; brain damage before or during birth; stressful life events; or usage of street drugs. Overall, it appears likely that some people may be born with a genetic predisposition towards schizophrenia, but it takes stressful life events or experiences to trigger the onset of symptoms.
What can be done?
The first step towards recovery from any illness is usually to recognise that there is a problem and to seek help. However, people experiencing schizophrenia often do not have the insight to recognise that they have a problem that can be treated. If this is the case, friends or family may have a role in encouraging the person to seek help. The first point of contact would usually be a GP who may be able to prescribe drug treatment, or refer the person to a psychiatrist or psychologist for more intensive treatment. Schizophrenia is usually treated with antipsychotic drugs which have a tranquillising effect and aim to reduce distressing psychotic symptoms such as delusions and hallucinations. Some people may experience unpleasant or distressing side effects from medication that makes them reluctant to take the drugs. If someone stops taking their medication it can lead to relapse. It is important to discuss with your doctor any problems or side effects you may be having from your prescribed drugs, as they may be able to help.
Other forms of treatment are known as talking treatments; these include counselling, cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) and psychotherapy. If a person is very distressed, they may be admitted to hospital for treatment. People are usually encouraged to go to hospital as voluntary patients, but sometimes if someone's behaviour is very disturbed, usually during psychotic episodes, they can be admitted to hospital against their will under the Mental Health Act 1983.
Who can help?
Friends and family can help by encouraging the person to seek treatment and support. They can offer general support and show the person that they are cared for. It is important to ensure that you don't say anything that might collude with delusional beliefs or feed any paranoia, as this can worsen the situation. It can be quite distressing living with someone with schizophrenia, so friends and family might wish to seek some support for themselves too. Many organisations can provide advice, information and practical or emotional support for people experiencing schizophrenia, their friends and family. These include mental health and drug charities, helplines, counselling and therapy services, social services, GPs and the health service.
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