Schizophrenia is a serious brain disorder that causes people to interpret reality abnormally. They don’t know what sights, sounds, and experiences are real or what they are imagining.
What Is Schizophrenia?
Schizophrenia usually involves delusions (false beliefs), hallucinations (seeing or hearing things that don’t exist), unusual physical behavior, and disorganized thinking and speech. It is common for people with schizophrenia to have paranoid thoughts or hear voices. For example, they may believe that someone is controlling their mind or going to cause them harm. These psychotic episodes are often frightening, confusing, and isolating.
Schizophrenia can be extremely disruptive to a person’s life, making it hard to go to school or work, keep a schedule, socialize, complete daily tasks, or take care of oneself. However, with consistent treatment—a combination of medication, therapy, and social support—people with schizophrenia can manage the disease and lead fulfilling lives.
What Causes Schizophrenia?
No one is sure what causes schizophrenia, but genetic makeup and brain chemistry likely play a role. Millions of Americans suffer from schizophrenia, and when people first experience symptoms and episodes, they may not seek treatment for a variety of reasons. They may not know they are sick, or they may be ashamed of being labeled with a serious mental illness.
Signs and Symptoms of Schizophrenia
Millions of Americans suffer from schizophrenia, which usually starts between the ages of 16-30. In men, symptoms usually start in the late teens and early 20s, and in women start in the mid-20s to early 30s.
Symptoms of schizophrenia vary from person to person and may change over time. Some people have one psychotic episode, while others experience many throughout their lives. When people first experience symptoms and episodes, they may not seek treatment for a variety of reasons— denial that they are sick; ashamed of being labeled with a serious mental illness; or do not realize they are showing signs and symptoms of schizophrenia. Hospitalization may be needed during a severe episode to ensure a person’s safety, proper nutrition, sufficient sleep, and other factors.
People with schizophrenia can experience:
- False beliefs that cannot be changed, even when presented facts (delusions).
- Seeing or hearing things that do not exist, such as a voice making commands (hallucinations).
- The belief that others are reading or controlling their minds.
- Disorganized thinking and speech, including shifting from one thought to the next without a logical connection, or speaking in sentences that do not make sense to others.
- Difficulty speaking and expressing emotion, as well as problems with attention, memory, and organization.
- Disorganized or abnormal physical behavior, including inappropriately, repetitive, or excessive or strange actions, or a complete lack of movement or talking.
- A reduced ability to function normally, such as ignoring personal hygiene or not showing emotion.
People with schizophrenia require lifelong treatment. But the earlier treatment begins, the better their chances for recovery and improved quality of life. Medication and therapy can help manage the symptoms of schizophrenia, and in many cases, people with schizophrenia can pursue their goals, have healthy relationships, keep jobs, and be productive members of their communities.
Medication: Antipsychotic medications help get symptoms under control—making them less intrusive and disturbing. A psychiatrist may need to try different medications, at different doses, before finding the most effective medication with the least amount of side effects. It can take several weeks to notice an improvement in symptoms. For people who do not respond to medication, Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) may be an option. This brain stimulation technique passes small electric currents through the brain to ease the symptoms of schizophrenia.
Therapy: In addition to medication, therapy provides guidance and support to people with schizophrenia and their families:
- Individual therapy (“talk therapy”) helps people normalize thought patterns, notice early warning signs of relapse, and handle stress.
- Family therapy offers support, insight, and awareness to families coping with schizophrenia.
What You Can Do: Daily Habits Make a Difference
Once medication and therapy begin to work, these strategies can help ease the challenges of schizophrenia:
- Stay focused on your treatment goals. Tell family members or friends your goals so they can provide support.
- Stick to your treatment plan. Even if symptoms lessen, it is important to go to therapy and take your medication as directed. Use a medication calendar or weekly pillbox to remember to take medications.
- Know your warning signs. Have a plan in place to deal with symptoms as they arise so you can get the right help as soon as possible.
- Take care of yourself. Your physical health is an important part of feeling good, too. Eat nutritious foods, exercise, and follow a regular sleep routine. Do not smoke, or use alcohol, or other drugs.
- Incorporate relaxation and stress management techniques into your life. Regularly doing activities such as meditation, or tai-chi, can help reduce stress and avoid triggering an episode.
- Join a support group. Share stories and advice with people who understand what you are going through. It is helpful to connect with – and learn from – others with schizophrenia.
- Educate yourself and others about schizophrenia. Learning about the illness can encourage you to follow your treatment plan and can also help your loved ones be more supportive and compassionate.
- Ask about social services assistance. These services help with affordable housing, jobs, transportation, and other daily activities.
Learn how to talk about mental health to help you speak to a loved one who you may think is experiencing any mental health concerns.
- If you or someone you know is struggling or in crisis, help is available. Call or text 988 or chat 988lifeline.org.
- To learn how to get support for mental health, drug, and alcohol issues, visit FindSupport.gov.
- To locate treatment facilities or providers, visit FindTreatment.gov or call SAMHSA’s National Helpline at 800-662-HELP (4357).
- Brain Stimulation Therapies | National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH)
- Schizophrenia (NIMH)
- Routine Administration of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Psychosis as the Standard of Care for Individuals Seeking Treatment for Psychosis
- Understanding Schizophrenia (PDF | 776 KB)
- NAMI: Schizophrenia
- Mayo Clinic: Schizophrenia
- First Episode Psychosis and Co-Occurring Substance Use Disorders
- Psychosis Interventions for Older Adults with Serious Mental Illness