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Schizophrenia

What is Schizophrenia? - Facts to Help You Understand Schizophrenia

If you have been diagnosed with schizophrenia, you may find coping with schizophrenia to be challenging. But first it is helpful to have a general understanding of what schizophrenia actually is. It is always easier to cope with something once you understand it better.

Schizophrenia is a very serious psychiatric illness which afflicts approximately 1% of the population. It is a very disabling disorder, and is both chronic and severe. While schizophrenia can strike at any age, it typically first appears in a person's life in late adolescence to his or her late twenties or early thirties. Symptoms of schizophrenia generally appear at an earlier age in males than in females.

Symptoms of Schizophrenia

Schizophrenia is a type of psychotic disorder, which means that the person often has a difficult time distinguishing between what is real and what is imagined. A person with schizophrenia often experiences psychotic symptoms in the form of delusions or hallucinations. Delusions are beliefs that are not based in reality, whereas hallucinations consist of imagined perceptual experiences, such as hearing imaginary voices or seeing things that are not real.

For example, a schizophrenic person may have the delusion that his thoughts are being controlled by aliens, or that his every movement is being tracked by a microchip which has been implanted in his brain. He may also experience auditory hallucinations in the form of voices telling him to do something or commenting on his actions. These psychotic symptoms can often make the schizophrenic individual feel very scared or paranoid.

Individuals with schizophrenia may also exhibit a variety of other symptoms. These may include a flattened affect, which means the person shows little or no emotional expression. Other symptoms may include withdrawing from people, engaging in bizarre behaviors, having difficulty organizing one's thoughts, or speaking in a way which makes no sense to others. They may also have a difficult time with attention and initiating plans.

Types of Schizophrenia and Related Disorders

According to the DSM-IV-R, there are currently five different types of schizophrenia. These are determined by the particular symptoms which are the most prominent at a given time. The five types are:

  • Paranoid
  • Disorganized
  • Catatonic
  • Undifferentiated
  • Residual

There are also two disorders that are closely related to schizophrenia: Schizophreniform disorder and schizoaffective disorder. Diagnosis can vary over time due to the current symptoms and other factors, making it confusing to the individual and to family members.

What Causes Schizophrenia?

While the cause of schizophrenia is still unknown, what research has shown us is that there are certain structural differences in the brain of an individual with schizophrenia, as well as a hereditary component. It has long been known that a person with a schizophrenic parent or other immediate family member is much more likely to develop the disorder than someone with no family history of the disorder. A recent study by the NIMH suggests that faulty wiring in the brain caused by missing genes may play a role in the development of schizophrenia.

Treatment of Schizophrenia

The treatment for schizophrenia generally includes a combination of the following:

  • Medication
  • Inpatient treatment
  • Education (for the individual and his or her family, significant other, or support system)
  • Therapy (including individual, family, and/or group therapy)
  • Residential or day treatment programs
  • Vocational training

Most individuals with schizophrenia require ongoing medication to manage their symptoms and minimize the occurrence and severity of psychotic episodes.

Because of the severity of the symptoms experienced by a person with schizophrenia, it can often be very difficult for the individual to function well in society or to do well in an occupation. Many individuals with schizophrenia are in and out of treatment facilities throughout their lives. Currently there is no known cure for schizophrenia. However, our understanding and treatment of schizophrenia is constantly improving, and research is ongoing. While the diagnosis of schizophrenia can be heartbreaking, there is always hope that in time medical researchers may find more and more ways to better treat the illness, and perhaps eventually determine if and how it can be prevented or cured.

Dr. Cheryl Lane has a doctorate in clinical psychology and 15 years experience working in the mental health field. Over the course of her career she has evaluated and treated many patients diagnosed with schizophrenia.

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