Causes, Symptoms and Treatment for Schizophrenia

Schizophrenia is a serious medical illness effecting over 2 million American adults. Although it is often feared and misunderstood, schizophrenia is a treatable medical condition. Schizophrenia often interferes with a person's ability to distinguish reality from fantasy, to manage emotions, make decisions, and relate to others. The first signs of schizophrenia typically emerge in the teenage years or early twenties, often later for females. These premorbid symptoms often appear in early childhood, are varied and very difficult to diagnose until the disease has fully manifested. Schizophrenia is not caused by bad parenting or personal weakness, although a few studies have shown that families that are verbose and prone to expressing emotion and "dysfunctional" may play a role in this illness. A person with schizophrenia is often confused with "multiple personalities". Almost all people with schizophrenia are not dangerous or violent towards others while they are receiving treatment. The World Health Organization has identified schizophrenia as one of the ten most debilitating diseases affecting human beings.

Symptoms of schizophrenia?

No one symptom positively identifies schizophrenia. All of the symptoms of this illness can also be found in other mental illnesses. For example, psychotic symptoms may be caused by the use of illicit drugs, may be present in individuals with Alzheimer’s disease, or may be characteristics of a manic episode in bipolar disorder referred to as "bipolar disorder with psychotic features". However, when a doctor observes the symptoms of schizophrenia and carefully assesses the history and the course of the illness over six months, he or she can almost always make a correct diagnosis. "Ideas of reference" are symptoms common to this illness whereby the individual believes that someone is communicating to them through repeated gestures or comments on television, radio or other behavior that are interpreted as signs or signals.

It is important to have a good medical work-up to be sure the diagnosis is correct. Drug use can mimic the symptoms of schizophrenia and may also trigger vulnerability in individuals at risk. Other medical concerns also need to be ruled out before a correct diagnosis can be made. Trauma to the head or tumors can also produce similar symptoms of this and other mental illnesses as well.

Schizophrenia also affects mood. While many individuals affected with schizophrenia become depressed, some also have apparent mood swings and even bipolar-like states. When mood instability is a major feature of the illness, it is called schizoaffective disorder, meaning that elements of schizophrenia and mood disorders are prominently displayed by the same individual. It is not clear whether schizoaffective disorder is a distinct condition or simply a subtype of schizophrenia. Bipolar disorder with psychotic features has symptoms very similar to schizophrenia as well.

Causes of schizophrenia:

Scientists still do not know the specific causes of schizophrenia, but research has shown that the brains of people with schizophrenia are different from the brains of people without the illness. Like many other medical illnesses such as cancer or diabetes, schizophrenia seems to be caused by a combination of problems including genetic vulnerability and environmental factors that occur during a person's development. Recent research has identified certain genes that appear to increase risk for schizophrenia. Like cancer and diabetes, the genes only increase the chances of becoming ill; they alone do not cause the illness. Other studies have revealed that fetal-alcohol poisoning "might" be a factor in the illness as well; and some studies claim that verbose, dysfunctional families that were highly expressive of their emotions may contribute to the illness as well. Understand that none of these studies are conclusive. Some studies seem to suggest that prenatal toxins such as alcohol may play a role in the disease as well as affecting the genetics - these are strictly suppositions and are by far inconclusive.

Treatment for schizophrenia:

The biggest challenge to treating this disorder is to convince the patient the he or she has it. Most people who suffer from schizophrenia do not have any insight into their illness which makes treatment impossible; except for court ordered injections or oral treatment. There is no cure for schizophrenia, yet it is a treatable illness. Patients sometimes stop treatment because of medication side effects, the lack of insight noted above, or because they feel the medication is no longer working. People with schizophrenia who stop taking prescribed medication are at risk of relapse into an acute psychotic episode. It’s important to realize that the needs of the person with schizophrenia may change over time. Here are a few examples of supports and interventions:

Recovery Supports/Relapse Prevention: There is increasing recognition of the benefits of learning from "someone who has been there." NAMI’s Peer to Peer program is designed to help individuals with mental illness learn from those who have become skilled at managing their illness. Peer support groups are also recognized as invaluable as individuals living with mental illness report better recovery outcomes as the shared experience is recognized as extremely beneficial. NAMI C.A.R.E. support groups are available in many communities and are expanding to better meet this need.

Family Support: Caregivers benefit greatly from NAMI’s Family-to-Family education program, taught by family members who have the knowledge and the skills needed to cope effectively with a loved one with a mental disorder. This program is available in all 50 states through many NAMI affiliates, and is offered in multiple languages in many communities.

Hospitalization: Individuals who experience acute symptoms of schizophrenia may require intensive treatment, including hospitalization. Hospitalization is necessary to treat severe delusions or hallucinations, serious suicidal thoughts, an inability to care for oneself, or severe problems with drugs or alcohol. Hospitalization may be essential to protect people from hurting themselves or others. Again court ordered hospitalization may be the only way to bring the patient to a point of awareness of their disease after forced treatment and the drugs begin to take effect.

Medication: The primary medications for schizophrenia are the antipsychotics. Antipsychotics help relieve the positive symptoms of schizophrenia by helping to correct an imbalance in the chemicals that enable brain cells to communicate with each other. Some of these are major tranquilizers that inhibit the production of dopamine. As with drug treatments for other physical illnesses, many patients with severe mental illnesses may need to try several different antipsychotic medications before they find the one, or the combination of medications, that works best for them.

Conventional Antipsychotics were introduced in the 1950s and all had similar ability to relieve the positive symptoms of schizophrenia. However, most of these older "conventional" antipsychotics differed in the side effects they produced. Some of the risks that may be incurred from taking these medicines include dry mouth, blurred vision, drowsiness, constipation, liver disease, and movement disorders such as stiffness, a sense of restless motion, and tardive dyskinesia.

 "Atypical" Antipsychotics were introduced in the 1990s. When compared to the older "conventional" antipsychotics, these medications appear to be equally effective for helping reduce the positive symptoms such as hallucinations and delusions, but may be better than the older medications at relieving the negative symptoms of the illness, e.g., withdrawal, thinking problems, and lack of energy. All these antipsychotics have serious side effects such as weight gain and the risk of diabetes, but they all do not carry the same relative risk for these conditions.

All medications have side effects. Different medications produce different side effects, and people differ in the amount and severity of side effects they experience. Side effects can often be treated by changing the dose of the medication, switching to a different medication, or treating the side effect directly with an additional medication. NAMI’s fact sheets on medications, developed by independent pharmacists, are a starting point to understand the risks and benefits of any individual medication. As with many issues in life, one has to consider the benefits with the side effects and determine which they care to live with based on the impact to their quality of life. Individuals thinking of starting or changing their medication should always gather good information, consider the risks and benefits, consult with their doctor and loved ones and work together to develop the most safe and effective treatment plan possible.

Psychosocial Rehabilitation: Research shows that people with schizophrenia who attend structured psychosocial rehabilitation programs and continue with their medical treatment manage their illness best.

Substance use counseling, housing, work and educational skill development are among other supports frequently required to maximize a person’s prospects for a higher functional level. Additional information on these topics is available at  NAMI. Individuals with schizophrenia face enormous challenges, including society’s stigmatization of people living with schizophrenia, and the discrimination that results from these prejudices. Consider getting involved in NAMI, The National Alliance on Mental Illness, in order to contribute to and benefit from NAMI’s core activities that support the NAMI mission: support, advocacy, education and improved research for this important and challenging condition.

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This article is for informational purposes only and not to be used in diagnosing or treating any illness