Introduction to Schizophrenia

While depression is often referred to by mental health professionals as the “common cold” of mental illness, schizophrenia is considered the “cancer”. This is because it is probably the most serious and debilitating psychiatric disorder that exists. Just over one out of every 100 people aged 18 or older has schizophrenia in the U.S. 1. That’s nearly two and a half million Americans 1.

Unlike depression and anxiety, which sometimes occur only during a short period of a person’s life, schizophrenia is a lifelong disorder. And at this time, there is no known cure. The symptoms of schizophrenia typically first appear in a person’s late teens or early twenties, although they can begin at any age. Generally speaking, males exhibit the first signs of schizophrenia earlier then females. Unlike some disorders, schizophrenia does not favor one gender over another.

What Causes Schizophrenia?

Despite much research, the specific cause of schizophrenia is essentially still a mystery. However, we do know that brain scans of individuals with the disorder show some differences from a brain scan of a normal person. Also, we’ve known for a long time that schizophrenia runs in families, which indicates a likely genetic factor. NIMH researchers recently discovered that schizophrenia may develop due to the absence of some key genes 2. Various other factors may also play a role in its development in an individual. Unfortunately, it may be a long time before we learn the exact cause or causes of this disabling disorder.

What Does Schizophrenia Look Like?

While the symptoms may vary depending on several factors, some of the most common symptoms of schizophrenia include hallucinations (such as hearing voices or seeing things which aren’t really there), delusions (believing something imagined is actually real), paranoia, lack of emotional expression, bizarre behavior, odd ways of thinking or speaking, and extremely disorganization behavior.

There are actually five different types of schizophrenia, as classified in the DSM-IV. These types are: paranoid, disorganized, undifferentiated, catatonic, and residual. The diagnosis depends on the symptoms. Also, there are two related disorders: schizoaffective disorder, and schizophreniform disorder.

How is Schizophrenia Treated?

Schizophrenia is typically treated with antipsychotic medications. There are many different types of antipsychotic medications available, and the effectiveness of each kind varies from individual to individual. May schizophrenics are hospitalized in psychiatric hospitals at some point, if not several times, in their life, due to the severity of their symptoms.

Many mental health clinics and hospitals offer residential and day treatment programs, which may be for a period of time or ongoing. These programs are less intensive than hospitalization. Individual or family therapy may be part of the treatment, as well as some type of vocational training.

Schizophrenia is a challenging disorder. However, many individuals with schizophrenia are able to have productive and happy lives. As research continues, there is always hope that we can either learn how to prevent it from developing, or cure it once it does.

written by Dr. Cheryl Lane, PsyD


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