Schizophrenia Symptoms, Causes, and Treatments

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Schizophrenia Symptoms, Causes, and Treatments

Schizophrenia is a brain disorder affecting between .33% - .75% of the world’s population. There are many common misconceptions about schizophrenia, including that people living with the disorder have “multiple personalities”, are prone to violence, or are unable to live fulfilling lives. While schizophrenia is a serious, lifelong mental illness, the reality of the disease is more complex. In this article, we outline common schizophrenia symptoms, causes, and treatments, dispelling some of the myths about the disorder.

What is Schizophrenia?

Schizophrenia is a mental disorder characterized by disturbances in perception, emotion, cognition, and interpersonal relationships. People with schizophrenia often experience psychosis, which can be described as a profound disconnection with reality. When a person is in a state of psychosis, they may see or hear things that are not there, develop false beliefs, or experience severe paranoia. People experience schizophrenia with a range of severity, with some people experiencing only brief, infrequent “episodes” of psychosis and other behavioral and cognitive disturbances. Others may require lifelong care due to the frequency of their episodes, cognitive and intellectual impairment, depressive symptoms, and / or substance use.

The exact cause of schizophrenia is not known, but it is believed that schizophrenia arises from a combination of physical, genetic, psychological, and environmental factors. Manifestations of schizophrenia range in severity, so while some people with schizophrenia are able to engage in school, work, and family life, others are unable to maintain gainful employment, attain educational goals, or fulfill family responsibilities. The severity of schizophrenia is affected by both the individual’s unique biological makeup, as well as factors such as access to mental healthcare, community support, and self-care routines.

Schizophrenia Symptoms

Schizophrenia symptoms are wide-ranging, and may vary depending on whether someone is actively experiencing an “episode”. Schizophrenia symptoms may include the following:

  • Psychosis: Psychosis, essentially, is a break with reality. During episodes of psychosis, people with schizophrenia may experience visual or auditory hallucinations, develop false beliefs, or feel extreme paranoia.

  • Disturbances in speech and language: People with schizophrenia may exhibit disorganized speech patterns such as:\n - Flight of ideas: Flight of ideas involves rapid, erratic speech that quickly moves between different topics.\n - Tangential speech: disorganized explanations that may quickly deviate from the topic at hand to a “tangent” on an irrelevant detail.\n - Disorganized speech: Disorganized speech is difficult to understand and does not follow a logical pattern.\n - Neologisms: A neologism is a word or phrase made up by the user which does not have a commonly acknowledged meaning. Common words may also be used in a bizarre or uncommon manner.

  • Disturbances in cognition: People with schizophrenia may experience unusual thought patterns such as:\n - Paranoid delusion / persecutory delusion: A paranoid or persecutory delusion is a belief that someone is trying to follow, harass, or harm the sufferer.\n - Ideas of reference: Closely related to paranoia, people experiencing ideas of reference tend to believe that seemingly mundane and innocuous events are messages about a person’s own life or destiny.\n - Thought broadcasting: A person experiencing thought broadcasting believes that they are thinking in unison with the people around them.

  • Negative symptoms: Negative symptoms are the lack of ability to function normally. A person experiencing negative symptoms may appear withdrawn, lack facial expressions, lose interest in everyday activities, and neglect personal hygiene.

  • Other cognitive differences: People with schizophrenia may have some general cognitive deficits. These symptoms may be present whether someone is experiencing an episode or not.\n - Lower IQ: In general, people with schizophrenia score lower on intelligence tests.\n - Attention deficit: People with schizophrenia may have difficulty holding their attention on tasks, even before the first major schizophrenic episode.\n - Verbal deficits: It may be difficult for people with schizophrenia to produce speech on demand and to retain verbal information.\n - Deficits in executive functioning: It may be difficult for people with schizophrenia to follow through with plans and engage in basic activities of daily living.

Schizophrenia Causes

It is not known exactly what causes schizophrenia, but research indicates that many factors may be at play. The following are known risk factors for schizophrenia:

  • Schizophrenia tends to run in families. A family history of schizophrenia is a known risk factor for the disease, but it is unlikely that one single gene is to blame. Rather, it is likely that a combination of genes predisposes people to the condition.\n- Prenatal malnutrition or exposure to toxins or viruses can impact brain development in a way that may contribute to schizophrenia.\n- Premature birth, asphyxia during birth, and low birthweight may contribute to the development of schizophrenia.\n- Using mind-altering drugs during childhood or adolescence can also impact brain development in a way that may contribute to schizophrenia.

The presence of these risk factors does not necessarily mean that someone will develop schizophrenia, but certain triggers may lead to the onset of schizophrenia symptoms when these predisposing factors are in place. Those triggers may include:

  • Extreme stress or trauma, such as a divorce, physical or sexual abuse, loss of a job, or the death of a loved one.\n- Abuse of drugs like cannabis, cocaine, LSD, and amphetamines can serve as triggers for schizophrenia.

While it may not be clear what the precise causes of schizophrenia are, these risk factors and triggers point to the likelihood that schizophrenia is related to differences in brain structure and function.

Treatment for Schizophrenia Symptoms

Before beginning treatment for schizophrenia symptoms, it is important to have an accurate diagnosis. Because some schizophrenia symptoms are similar to symptoms of other conditions, like bipolar disorder (which may manifest psychosis), or depression (which may manifest lack of interest in daily activities and neglect of personal hygiene), it is important to exclude the presence of these symptoms before confirming the presence of schizophrenia.

Because schizophrenia is a lifelong disease, it is also important to have a holistic plan in place for those experiencing the condition, which is sustainable and accessible throughout the lifespan. Components of a treatment plan may include the following:

  • Hospitalization: During an acute episode of schizophrenia symptoms, hospitalization may be required to keep the patient safe and help symptoms subside quickly.

  • Medications: Antipsychotic drugs are an important component of schizophrenia management. Antipsychotic drugs are thought to prevent episodes of psychosis by regulating the neurotransmitter dopamine. Antianxiety and antidepressant medications can also help manage schizophrenia symptoms.

  • Therapy and support groups: Different types of therapy may be beneficial for people living with schizophrenia symptoms.\n - Individual therapy: One-on-one therapy with a psychologist, psychiatrist, or clinical social worker can help people living with schizophrenia learn to identify triggers for symptoms, develop methods for coping with stress, and normalize thought patterns.\n - Family therapy: Family therapy can help to educate family members on how to help the family member with schizophrenia manage their illness. It can also support family members through the difficulties of having a loved one with schizophrenia.\n - Group therapy: Group therapy for schizophrenia can help people to develop healthy social skills and lessen feelings of isolation that often affect people with the disease.\n - “Hearing voices” groups: A newer form of treatment for people who have schizophrenia are “hearing voices” groups. These groups were formed based on the fact that many people who hear voices - especially in western cultures - experience them as intrusive or malevolent. In hearing voices groups, members may learn to take control of the voices they hear so that they become more benign or friendly. These groups also help to reduce the stigma and discrimination sometimes directed at voice hearers, highlighting the fact that many people, even those without schizophrenia, hear voices.

Schizophrenia symptoms can take a heavy toll on an individual and their loved ones. Positive schizophrenia symptoms like unusual behavior, hallucinations, delusions, hearing voices, and seeing things that aren’t there can be frightening and difficult to manage. Negative symptoms like lack of emotion, loss of interest in daily activities, and withdrawal may also be difficult to manage, and foster a sense of hopelessness in the sufferer and their loved ones. However, there are many treatment options developed by the ever-evolving fields of psychology and psychiatry that can improve the quality of life. Further, as research continues to evolve, it is likely that we will be able to gain a more robust understanding of the causes behind schizophrenia and that we will begin to learn ways to prevent the disorder altogether.

Practice active listening and follow through

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