- Mar 30, 2007
Schizophrenia is a mental illness that involves a variety of symptoms. The actual symptoms experienced vary from patient to patient. However, to make the diagnosis it is likely that these will include hallucinations - where you hear, see or smell things which others cannot hear, see or smell - and delusions - where you get ideas about the world which do not match with the views of everyone else - for example - that you are somebody else, or that you are being spoken to by the TV.
Mood disturbance often accompanies acute schizophrenia and can be of any type, such as depression, anxiety, irritability or euphoria.
Emotional responses are often inappropriate for their surroundings - for example, laughing at sad news or appearing unconcerned by important events.
Generally, a schizophrenic knows where they are in time and place, but the presence of disordered thoughts may make them feel confused.
Higher mental reasoning is usually impaired and they often lack insight into their condition. They find it difficult to plan things or organise themselves.
Spotting the signs
Usually a person suffering from schizophrenia will not know they are experiencing symptoms of the illness.
Often the person may feel persecuted or 'got at' in some way, which can cause fear and anxiety. Other people may notice a change in the person's behaviour, or in the content of their speech.
Sufferers may become preoccupied with certain issues that seem bizarre to those around them.
They may express paranoid ideas or respond to the hallucinations they experience. These hallucinations usually take the form of hearing voices that other people cannot hear.
- a lack of drive
- social withdrawal.
As with the acute state, hallucinations and delusions are common.
Sometimes in chronic schizophrenia the person appears to become used to these disordered thoughts.
For example, they might harbour the idea that someone is trying to get at them, but this does not cause any emotional reaction.
How common is schizophrenia?
Worldwide schizophrenia is present in two to four people per 1000 of the population at any one time. One in 100 people will develop schizophrenia in their lifetime.
How does schizophrenia develop?
The cause of schizophrenia is unknown, but it may have a genetic component. There is no ‘gene for schizophrenia’ but a family history of the illness increases the risk of being affected:
- if a grandparent had the illness, the risk rises to 3 per cent.
- if one parent was affected, the risk is as high as 10 per cent.
- this rises to 40 per cent if both parents have schizophrenia.
Factors that may trigger an episode of schizophrenia include stressful life events, and the use of illegal drugs such as cannabis.
What can schizophrenics and their families do to help themselves?
If you think you are experiencing symptoms of schizophrenia, you should seek help from your doctor.
However, one of the features of the disease is sufferers do not understand they are unwell during acute episodes of illness. It is therefore important that family and friends are able to seek help on their behalf.
The first point of call should be the person's family doctor or mental health team worker.
Schizophrenics who are on long-term medication should continue to take this medication, because it has a protective effect against future relapses.
How does the doctor make a diagnosis?
The diagnosis is based on an assessment of the history given by the patient and by any other people who are able to give further information.
What is the course of the disease?
- About a quarter of the people diagnosed with schizophrenia will have one episode of illness, make a good recovery and have no further problems.
- A further 25 per cent will develop a long-term chronic illness with no periods of remission.
- The remaining 50 per cent of those diagnosed will have a long-term illness that comes and goes with periods of remission and relapse.
- with poor social support
- with a strong family history of schizophrenia
- in whom the illness came on slowly
- in whom treatment was delayed.
The risk of relapse is significantly improved by continuing appropriate medication for at least six months after an acute episode.
Positive family intervention may also help to maintain periods without illness, as can help with social skills training and psychological therapy.
People with schizophrenia have higher rates of depression than the general population. There are also high rates of suicide among people with schizophrenia.
Although not a cure, studies show antipsychotic medicines improve the symptoms of schizophrenia and help prevent relapse.
They are effective against the positive symptoms of schizophrenia, eg hallucinations, but have little impact on the negative symptoms such as lack of motivation and flat mood.
Antipsychotic medicines have important short-term and long-term side effects. Side effects can include:
- dry mouth
- blurred vision
If these side effects occur, your doctor may change your dose or prescribe other medicines to help with the side effects, or another antipsychotic medicine can be tried that may cause less problems.
A long-term movement problem known as tardive dyskinesia occurs in some patients who are on treatment for a prolonged period.
Is therapy helpful?
Research shows interventions with the families of schizophrenics can reduce relapse rates.
These family interventions usually last several weeks and consist of education about the illness and help with problem solving.
Research also suggests a type of psychological therapy known as cognitive behavioural therapy may help to reduce relapse rates. Further studies are required in this area.
There is limited evidence that giving people with schizophrenia help and training in social skills may help prevent relapses.