Schizophrenia is a long-term psychological condition which has an effect on the way people think, feel and behave. Some doctors describe schizophrenia as a psychotic illness because it affects the ability to establish between what is real and what is not. For example, people with schizophrenia may experience thoughts that they are unable to distinguish from real life.

Schizophrenia is one of the most common severe mental health conditions. The National Survey of Psychiatric Morbidity in 2000 showed that 5 out of every 1000 people were diagnosed with a psychotic disorder, while other figures suggest that around 1 in 100 people may experience symptoms associated with schizophrenia at some point in their lives. Men and women seem to be equally affected by the condition, though men tend to develop symptoms between the ages of 15 and 30, while women often experience symptoms between the ages of 25 and 30.

What causes schizophrenia?

The precise source of schizophrenia is unidentified, though several possible causes have been identified. In many cases, experts think a mixture of factors contribute to schizophrenia. In some cases, the cause is unknown but there are risk factors which tend to make some people prone to developing schizophrenia.

These include:

  • Genetics: around 1 in 10 people with schizophrenia have a close relative with the condition. However, a specific gene has not been identified and it is likely that a combination of genes is likely to increase the risk of an individual developing schizophrenia.
  • Development of the brain: studies have shown that the development of the brain is slightly different in people who have schizophrenia and research has established differences in the structure of the brain or small differences in the brain cells of a person with schizophrenia.
  • Neurotransmitters: neurotransmitters are chemicals that carry messages between brain cells. There is evidence to suggest that neurotransmitters may be linked to schizophrenia, as taking medication that changes the levels of neurotransmitters has been found to reduce symptoms. Medications include dopamine and serotonin.
  • Complications in birth and pregnancy.

Triggers for schizophrenia

There are some factors that can trigger symptoms of schizophrenia without actually being causes of the condition, including:

  • Drug abuse: taking certain types of drugs like including cannabis can increase the risk of schizophrenia.
  • Stressful or traumatic events: this may include the breakdown of relationships, divorce, losing a job or bereavement.

Symptoms of schizophrenia

Symptoms of schizophrenia are usually classified according to the type of impact they have on the individual and are usually categorised as positive or negative. Initially, symptoms of schizophrenia can be hard to detect because the illness tends to develop slowly and symptoms can be fairly general. Becoming withdrawn or suffering from disturbed sleep patterns, for example, can be associated with many conditions, as well as being linked to schizophrenia.

Positive symptoms: positive symptoms involve a change in behaviour or the way you think, which include:

  • Delusions: delusions are thoughts or beliefs that an individual clings to and completely believes in, despite the fact that they are not true, unsupported and not accepted by the general public.
  • Hallucinations: hallucinations affect the senses and make people see or hear things that are not really there.
  • Thought disorder: thought disorder is also known as confused thoughts.
  • Changes in behaviour.

Negative symptoms: negative symptoms prevent people from feeling natural emotions and functioning properly. They tend to develop in advanced cases, which is why an individual may suffer symptoms of schizophrenia for a long time before they experience any negative symptoms. Examples of negative symptoms include:

  • Becoming socially withdrawn.
  • Appearing flat and disinterested.
  • Losing motivation.
  • Loss of interest in sex and relationships.
  • Lack of concentration.
  • Disturbed sleep patterns.
  • Loss of interest in your appearance and personal hygiene.

How is schizophrenia diagnosed?

If you develop symptoms and think you may have schizophrenia you should see your GP as soon as possible, as the earlier the condition is attended to the higher the chance of successful treatment. When you visit your GP they will discuss your symptoms, medical history and also ask questions to rule out other causes of your symptoms, such as drug abuse.

Schizophrenia can usually be diagnosed based on symptoms. If you have the symptoms listed above, they are affecting your daily life, you have had them for longer than 6 months and other causes have been discarded, a conclusion of schizophrenia can be made in the majority of cases.

There are different types of schizophrenia, with the most common type being paranoid schizophrenia.

If your doctor suspects that you have schizophrenia they will usually refer you to a community mental health team. This team consists of specialist mental health physicians. The team will carry out detailed tests and draw up a detailed treatment plan once they have reached a firm diagnosis.
Treatment and help for schizophrenia

There are various treatments available for patients with schizophrenia and most people will be treated with a variety of treatments. These include:

  • Medication: drugs known as neuroleptic drugs are used to control and ease positive symptoms; antipsychotic medication may also be prescribed.
  • Talking therapies: these include cognitive behavioural therapy, family therapy, arts therapy and group sessions.
  • Group support: many people find it helpful to talk to people in a similar situation and group sessions can be very effective. They enable people to make friends and form bonds with people they trust and understand.

Support is available from the community mental health team and there are also charities, such as Mind, that provide information, advice and emotional support for people with schizophrenia and their relatives.

If you have a close friend or relative who you suspect has schizophrenia, try to encourage them to see their doctor and show that you are there to support them. It can be very difficult to care for somebody with schizophrenia since it is a complex condition. Charities are there to help and healthcare professionals will be on hand to offer advice and support. If you are struggling, do not hesitate to ask for help.

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