Schizophrenia is a severe, chronic 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.
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.
Millions of Americans suffer from schizophrenia, which usually starts between the ages of 16-30.
When people first experience symptoms and episodes, they may not seek treatment for a variety of reasons—are in denial that they are sick; are ashamed of being labeled with a serious mental illness; or do not realize they are showing signs and symptoms of schizophrenia.
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.
Symptoms of schizophrenia vary from person to person and may change over time. Hospitalization may be needed during a severe episode to ensure a person’s safety, proper nutrition, sufficient sleep, and other factors.
The signs of schizophrenia involve:
- Delusions: false beliefs that a person does not change, even when presented facts.
- Hallucinations: seeing or hearing things that do not exist, such as a voice making commands.
- Disorganized thinking and speech: impaired communication, including shifting from one thought to the next without a logical connection, or speaking in sentences that do not make sense to others.
- Disorganized or abnormal physical behavior: inappropriate or strange actions, a complete lack of movement or talking, acting with a childlike silliness, unpredictable agitation, repetitive or excessive movements.
- Negative symptoms: a reduced or lack of the ability to function normally, such as ignoring personal hygiene or not showing emotion.
Some people have one psychotic episode, while others experience many throughout their lives. When treated with medication and therapy, in many cases, people with schizophrenia can pursue their goals, have healthy relationships, keep jobs, and be productive members of their communities.
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.
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 no 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.
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 illegal 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 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.
Effective treatments for schizophrenia are available in your area. The earlier that begin treatment, the greater likelihood of a better outcome. For confidential and anonymous help finding a specialty program near you, visit SAMHSA’s Early Serious Mental Illness Treatment Locator.
If you, or someone you know, need help to stop using substances – whether the problem is methamphetamine, alcohol or another drug – call SAMHSA’s National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357) or TTY: 1-800-487-4889, or text your zip code to 435748 (HELP4U), or use the SAMHSA’s Behavioral Health Treatment Services Locator to get help.
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