Schizophrenia is a serious and challenging medical illness, an illness that affects well over 2 million American adults, which is about 1 percent of the population age 18 and older. Although it is often feared and misunderstood, schizophrenia is a treatable medical condition.
Schizophrenia often interferes with a person’s ability to think clearly, to distinguish reality from fantasy, to manage emotions, make decisions, and relate to others. The first signs of schizophrenia typically emerge in the teenage years or early twenties, often later for females. Most people with schizophrenia contend with the illness chronically or episodically throughout their lives, and are often stigmatized by lack of public understanding about the disease. Schizophrenia is not caused by bad parenting or personal weakness. A person with schizophrenia does not have a “split personality,” and almost all people with schizophrenia are not dangerous or violent towards others while they are receiving treatment. The World Health Organization has identified schizophrenia as one of the ten most debilitating diseases affecting human beings.
What are the symptoms of schizophrenia?
No one symptom positively identifies schizophrenia. All of the symptoms of this illness can also be found in other mental illnesses. For example, psychotic symptoms may be caused by the use of illicit drugs, may be present in individuals with Alzheimer’s disease, or may be characteristics of a manic episode in bipolar disorder. However, when a doctor observes the symptoms of schizophrenia and carefully assesses the history and the course of the illness over six months, he or she can almost always make a correct diagnosis.
As with any other psychiatric diagnosis, it is important to have a good medical work-up to be sure the diagnosis is correct. Drug use can mimic the symptoms of schizophrenia and may also trigger vulnerability in individuals at risk. Other medical concerns also need to be ruled out before a correct diagnosis can be made.
The symptoms of schizophrenia are generally divided into three categories — Positive, Negative, and Cognitive:
Schizophrenia also affects mood. While many individuals affected with schizophrenia become depressed, some also have apparent mood swings and even bipolar-like states. When mood instability is a major feature of the illness, it is called schizoaffective disorder, meaning that elements of schizophrenia and mood disorders are prominently displayed by the same individual. It is not clear whether schizoaffective disorder is a distinct condition or simply a subtype of schizophrenia.
What are the causes of schizophrenia?
Scientists still do not know the specific causes of schizophrenia, but research has shown that the brains of people with schizophrenia are different from the brains of people without the illness. Like many other medical illnesses such as cancer or diabetes, schizophrenia seems to be caused by a combination of problems including genetic vulnerability and environmental factors that occur during a person’s development. Recent research has identified certain genes that appear to increase risk for schizophrenia. Like cancer and diabetes, the genes only increase the chances of becoming ill; they alone do not cause the illness.
How is schizophrenia treated?
While there is no cure for schizophrenia, it is a treatable and manageable illness. However, people sometimes stop treatment because of medication side effects, the lack of insight noted above, disorganized thinking, or because they feel the medication is no longer working. People with schizophrenia who stop taking prescribed medication are at risk of relapse into an acute psychotic episode. It’s important to realize that the needs of the person with schizophrenia may change over time. Here are a few examples of supports and interventions:
All medications have side effects. Different medications produce different side effects, and people differ in the amount and severity of side effects they experience. Side effects can often be treated by changing the dose of the medication, switching to a different medication, or treating the side effect directly with an additional medication. NAMI’s fact sheets on medications, developed by independent pharmacists, are a starting point to understand the risks and benefits of any individual medication. Individuals thinking of starting or changing their medication should always gather good information, consider the risks and benefits, consult with their doctor and loved ones and work together to develop the most safe and effective treatment plan possible.
Individuals with schizophrenia face enormous challenges, including society’s stigmatization of people living with schizophrenia, and the discrimination that results from these prejudices. Consider getting involved in NAMI, The National Alliance on Mental Illness, in order to contribute to and benefit from NAMI’s core activities that support the NAMI mission: support, advocacy, education and improved research for this important and challenging condition.
Reviewed by Ken Duckworth, M.D., February 2007
More Fact Sheets
NAMI’s Fact Sheet on Tardive Dyskinesia
|Early Onset Schizophrenia
NAMI’s Fact Sheet on Early Onset Schizophrenia
|Understanding Schizophrenia (PDF)|
General information about Abilify(aripiprazole)
General information about Ativan (lorazepam).
General information about Clozaril (clozapine)
General information about Geodon (ziprasidone)
General information about Haldol (haloperidol).
General information about Prolixin (fluphenazine).
General information about Risperdal (risperidone)
General information about Risperdal Consta
|Living with Schizophrenia Community
Welcome to NAMI’s Living with Schizophrenia community. Here you will find support, get targeted information and connect with people who understand.
Learn more about the full spectrum of programs and services that NAMI provides across the country for people living with mental illnesses, and their families and loved ones.
|Living with Schizophrenia
Find support, share knowledge, ask questions and meet people who’ve been there.
|Mental Illness Discussion Groups
Dozens of online groups for consumers, parents, spouses, siblings, teens and more. Get connected and find support.
|Clinical Antipsychotic Trials of Intervention Effectiveness (CATIE)
NIMH sponsored multi-center clinical trial and information resource.
Schizophrenia research studies identified through the U.S. National Library of Medicine’s link to federally and privately funded studies worldwide.
|NAMI Translation of Schizophrenia PORT
Consumer and family member guide to PORT treatment recommendations.
|National Institute of Mental Health
Information from the NIH institute on schizophrenia.
|Texas Medication Algorithm Project (TMAP)
Guide to treatment decision-making for schizophrenia, major depression, and bipolar disorder.
|The Schizophrenia Patient Outcomes Research Team (PORT) Treatment Recommendations
On-line listing of authoritative treatment recommendations for schizophrenia.
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