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Learn about schizophrenia and mental illness
Schizophrenia is a mental illness that makes it hard for those suffering from it to tell the difference between what is real and what is not real. It makes it difficult for them to think clearly, have standard emotional responses to situations, and to act normally in social settings. Schizophrenia is characterized by a breakdown in one’s ability to think properly. Schizophrenia is chronic, severe, and disabling for the majority of individuals who suffer from it.
While suffering from schizophrenia can cause extreme distress and turmoil, know that there is help for you or your loved one. Through a combination of different forms of therapy, along with the determination of appropriate psychiatric medications, a person with schizophrenia can lead a productive life.
It is estimated that about 1% of Americans suffer from schizophrenia. Unlike other types of mental illness, schizophrenia appears to affect men and women in equal amounts. The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) reports that it is uncommon for people over the age of 45 to suffer the initial onset of schizophrenia. Up until recent years, schizophrenia was not commonly known to occur in children, but there has been a growing awareness of the increasing amounts of childhood-onset schizophrenia.
Causes and risk factors for schizophrenia
It’s not believed that schizophrenia is caused by a single root factor; rather it’s believed that an amalgamation of genetic, physical, and environmental risk factors work together to cause this disorder. Most commonly cited contributing factors include:
Genetic: Schizophrenia has been long known to run in families. While schizophrenia only affects about 1% of the general population, 10% of people who have a first-degree relative suffering from the disorder develop the disease.
Physical: It has been hypothesized that people suffering from schizophrenia have an imbalance of the interrelated chemical reactions of the neurotransmitters dopamine and glutamate in the brain. These neurotransmitters are responsible for allowing brain cells to communicate with one another, so the imbalance that occurs in people with schizophrenia may experience a lack of cranial communication. According to the NIMH, studies of brain tissues post-mortem have revealed differences in the brains of people with schizophrenia as opposed to the brains of people not suffering from the illness.
Environmental: The most common environmental factors that scientists have concluded play a role in its onset is that of malnutrition before birth, exposure to viruses before birth, and problems during birth. Experts in the field are quick to admit that there are most likely many more environmental factors that come into play, but they have yet to provide any conclusive evidence.
- Family history of other mental illness
- Exposure to viruses and/or malnutrition in utero
- Problems at the time of one’s birth
- Increased immune system activation (such as autoimmune diseases)
- Taking mind-altering substances (e.g. psychoactive or psychotropic drugs)
- Having a father who is older in age
Signs and symptoms of schizophrenia
The display of schizophrenia symptoms like hallucinations and delusions generally start between the ages of 16 and 30, with men typically experiencing symptoms earlier than women. Signs and symptoms of schizophrenia can vary from person to person depending on a number of factors, including the age of the person and the length of time in which the person has been knowingly suffering from the illness. The symptoms of schizophrenia are broken down into positive symptoms, negative symptoms, and cognitive symptoms. The following are examples of each:
Positive symptoms: Positive symptoms of schizophrenia are psychotic behaviors that healthy people do not typically display. People with positive symptoms tend to lose touch with reality, but the symptoms themselves can come and go in their level of severity. Some examples of positive symptoms can include:
- Thought disorders
- Movement disorders
Negative symptoms: Negative symptoms of schizophrenia are associated specifically with disturbances to normal emotions and behaviors. Because these types of symptoms can be mistaken for symptoms of other conditions, such as depression, they may be harder to recognize in individuals suffering from schizophrenia. Some examples of negative symptoms include:
- Lack of pleasure in one’s life
- Speaking as little as possible, even when placed in a position where he or she is expected to interact
- Lack of ability to begin and/or maintain involvement in planned activities
- Flat affect (signs of this involve a person speaking in a monotonous, dull tone of voice or lacking any form of facial expression when he or she is talking)
Cognitive symptoms: Unlike the positive and negative symptoms associated with schizophrenia, cognitive symptoms present themselves in a much more subtle manner. They may be so subtle that they can be difficult to identify as being a sign that the illness exists. The following are examples of cognitive symptoms that may occur as a result of schizophrenia:
- Trouble focusing
- Difficulty paying attention
- Poor executive functioning (e.g. struggling to understand the information that one receives and then having difficulty applying it to make appropriate decisions)
- Problems with one’s working memory (e.g. difficulty using and applying information directly after learning it)
Effects of schizophrenia
While schizophrenia can have a deteriorating effect on the individual suffering from the disease, family and friends are often greatly affected as well. The effects of schizophrenia can range from minor to severe, but all have an enormous impact on a person’s life. The following are some examples of the different types of effects that schizophrenia can have on a person:
- Severe anxiety
- Abuse of substances (alcohol, drugs, prescription medications)
- Social isolation
- Family discord
- Relationship conflicts
- Inability to attend work or school
- Falling victim to aggressive behaviors
Schizophrenia and co-occurring disorders
The most prominent type of co-occurring disorder that exists with schizophrenia is substance use disorder. However, there are other types of disorder that may co-occur with the illness as well. The following is a list of examples of such disorders:
- Substance use disorder
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder
- Panic disorder
- Anxiety disorders
- Schizotypal disorder
- Paranoid personality disorder