What is Schizophrenia?

schizophrenia - what is it?

Schizophrenia is the most misunderstood of all mental illnesses. The public’s false perception of the disorder makes life hard for people already suffering from the illness. Increasing awareness of the medical facts helps people living with schizophrenia, their friends and families, and society at large. Schizophrenia has nothing to do with a “split personality.”

It’s a brain disorder known as a psychotic illness. It affects the central nervous system and leads to distorted perceptions of reality, hallucinations, and heightened emotional states. A knock-on effect is difficulty functioning and maintaining relationships at work and home. There is no cure for schizophrenia, but several effective therapies can help relieve and control symptoms.

A person with schizophrenia, if left untreated, will experience bouts of altered perceptions, disordered thoughts, paranoia, and hallucinations which can frighten the sufferer and others. This a “psychotic episode.” Such episodes can range from mild to severe. The number and duration of psychotic episodes someone with schizophrenia experiences varies with each individual.

Between episodes, or with treatment, most schizophrenics live normal and satisfying lives. Others may experience a gradual worsening of episodes. Episodes may occur in cycles known as “relapse and remission cycles.”

What Are the Symptoms?

The primary symptoms of schizophrenia are psychological, emotional and behavioral. Psychiatrists categorize different symptoms as positive or negative. The balance of symptoms varies between sufferers and episodes.

Schizophrenia: Positive Symptoms

In this context the term “positive” doesn’t mean “good.” It means a visible expression of distorted, irrational thinking and behavior. Positive symptoms include delusions, hallucinations, catatonia, and psychomotor dysfunction.


Delusions are bizarre beliefs divorced from reality, but which a person continues to believe even when presented with rational evidence to the contrary. Common delusions include the belief that other people can hear what you are thinking, that you are a famous person from history, or that the radio is communicating secret, coded messages to you. Delusions may be harmless in themselves or they may put the deluded person and others at risk


Hallucinations are false perceptions: seeing non-existent things, hearing disembodied voices, detecting smells and tastes unrelated to any possible cause, and having odd physical sensations such as insects crawling over your skin. They may cause the sensation of missing body parts, or the conviction you are “rotting inside.” Hearing voices telling you to do things, insulting you, or whispering secrets is another form of hallucination.


In a catatonic state, the sufferer becomes immobile. A person may stay in catatonia for anything from several minutes to over a week. During catatonia, the patient becomes unresponsive to external stimuli.

Psychomotor Dysfunction

Psychomotor dysfunction interrupts the normal flow of information between the brain and the rest of the body. Sufferers may not form coherent speech or may resort to nonsense words. Repetitive gestures, slow movements, confusion about surroundings, and memory loss may all be indicators of psychomotor dysfunction

Cognitive Dysfunction

Cognitive dysfunction leads to disrupted thoughts. A patient may not understand or follow simple instructions or may not pay attention for more than a few seconds. Memory impairment is often a feature. Many people report “racing thoughts” and lack of concentration.

Schizophrenia: Negative Symptoms

In the same way positive in this context doesn’t mean good, negative doesn’t mean bad. It refers to a range of symptoms identified as the absence of normal feelings, thoughts, and behaviors. These have personal and social consequences.

Emotional Problems

Schizophrenics may feel “numb.” Or they may oscillate between periods of euphoria and low mood. Things that used to be pleasurable lose their appeal.

Social Withdrawal

Sufferers may withdraw from their social contacts, having no further interest in their relationships with family, friends, and colleagues. A patient may not see the point in human interaction. Loss of personal and social motivation can leave schizophrenics feeling alone and isolated.

Personal Care Deficit

Keeping up with personal care and grooming can be hard when you’re in the middle of a psychotic episode. In that time, sufferers may neglect to wash, cut and comb hair, or dress. They may also stop eating.

What Causes Schizophrenia?

The precise causes of Schizophrenia are still unknown. However, medical opinion unites in classifying it as a biological disease which affects the brain. Ongoing research shows which factors are likely to play a part in the onset of schizophrenia.

Brain Chemistry

There is increasing evidence to show that during psychotic episodes multiple problems occur with the normal functioning of chemicals known as neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters facilitate communication between different parts of the brain and for regulating thought and perceptual processes. The exact ways in which these effects occur are still being researched.


The attempt to name and isolate the genes responsible for schizophrenia continues. However, research shows that the condition often runs in families. This knowledge can be useful in early diagnosis.

Environmental Influences

Research has shown that viral infections, drug abuse, and stress may all trigger psychotic episodes or the onset of schizophrenia in people genetically predisposed to the disease. The first signs of the illness often become clear during periods of change. Diagnosis is most common in teenagers.

Schizophrenia: Who Can Get It?

Schizophrenia is a global phenomenon affecting people of both sexes of all races and cultures. While most often diagnosed during adolescence or early adulthood, the condition can start in later life. It is rare in children.

How Common Is Schizophrenia?

Schizophrenia is relatively common. In the USA, just over 2 million citizens above the age of 18 are diagnosed with the condition. Even as medical interventions and early diagnosis improve, this figure is unlikely to fall. About 1 percent of the world population is schizophrenic.

Schizophrenia: How Is It Diagnosed?

A doctor will examine the patient’s medical and family history. He may also carry out a physical exam. To eliminate other possible causes of symptoms, blood tests and brain scans are useful. If the symptoms are not explained by another illness or disease, then referral to a psychiatrist or clinical psychologist for a detailed mental health assessment is the next step.

Diagnosis results from medical and psychological profiles, together with the psychiatrist’s observations.

How Is Schizophrenia Treated?

An initial period of hospitalization is probable while treatment is tailored to the individual. Hospitalization also makes sure a patient has immediate care and support during what can be a frightening experience. During the stay, the medical team devises the patient’s personal care and rehabilitation plan.

Chemical Therapy

As schizophrenia is incurable, the aim of treatment is to reduce symptoms and defer relapse as long as possible. In most cases, medication is necessary. There are several chemical therapies available and it can take time to find the best medicine, or combination of medicines, for each individual.

Psychotherapy and Social Support

Medication alone is not enough. While it helps relieve and control the symptoms, psychotherapy helps the sufferer to cope with psychosis, develop positive strategies, and learn to recognize the signs of a relapse. Support to improve social skills, get back to work, and reintegrate with the community is helpful. Rehabilitation is always the goal, and family education may also play an important role.

With early diagnosis, correct medical treatment, psychotherapy, and social support, many schizophrenics lead fulfilling and productive lives despite their illness. As research continues and medical science advances, better treatments are likely to become available. In the meantime, replacing the public perception of schizophrenics as dangerous and scary with the medical facts is a positive step to help sufferers, their families and society.

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