Schizophrenia is a severe brain disorder in which people interpret reality abnormally. Schizophrenia may result in some combination of hallucinations, delusions, and extremely disordered thinking and behavior.
Contrary to popular belief, schizophrenia isn’t a split personality or multiple personality. The word “schizophrenia” does mean “split mind,” but it refers to a disruption of the usual balance of emotions and thinking.
Schizophrenia is a chronic condition, requiring lifelong treatment.
It’s not known what causes schizophrenia, but researchers believe that a combination of genetics and environment contributes to development of the disorder.
Problems with certain naturally occurring brain chemicals, including neurotransmitters called dopamine and glutamate, also may contribute to schizophrenia. Neuroimaging studies show differences in the brain structure and central nervous system of people with schizophrenia. While researchers aren’t certain about the significance of these changes, they support evidence that schizophrenia is a brain disease.
In men, schizophrenia symptoms typically start in the early to mid-20s. In women, symptoms typically begin in the late 20s. It’s uncommon for children to be diagnosed with schizophrenia and rare for those older than 45.
Schizophrenia involves a range of problems with thinking (cognitive), behavior or emotions. Signs and symptoms may vary, but they reflect an impaired ability to function. Symptoms may include:
- Delusions. These are false beliefs that are not based in reality. For example, you’re being harmed or harassed; certain gestures or comments are directed at you; you have exceptional ability or fame; another person is in love with you; a major catastrophe is about to occur; or your body is not functioning properly. Delusions occur in as many as 4 out of 5 people with schizophrenia.
- Hallucinations. These usually involve seeing or hearing things that don’t exist. Yet for the person with schizophrenia, they have the full force and impact of a normal experience. Hallucinations can be in any of the senses, but hearing voices is the most common hallucination.
- Disorganized thinking (speech). Disorganized thinking is inferred from disorganized speech. Effective communication can be impaired, and answers to questions may be partially or completely unrelated. Rarely, speech may include putting together meaningless words that can’t be understood, sometimes known as word salad.
- Extremely disorganized or abnormal motor behavior. This may show in a number of ways, ranging from childlike silliness to unpredictable agitation. Behavior is not focused on a goal, which makes it hard to perform tasks. Abnormal motor behavior can include resistance to instructions, inappropriate and bizarre posture, a complete lack of response, or useless and excessive movement.
- Negative symptoms. This refers to reduced ability or lack of ability to function normally. For example, the person appears to lack emotion, such as not making eye contact, not changing facial expressions, speaking without inflection or monotone, or not adding hand or head movements that normally provide the emotional emphasis in speech. Also, the person may have a reduced ability to plan or carry out activities, such as decreased talking and neglect of personal hygiene, or have a loss of interest in everyday activities, social withdrawal or a lack of ability to experience pleasure.
Symptoms in teenagers
Schizophrenia symptoms in teenagers are similar to those in adults, but the condition may be more difficult to recognize in this age group. This may be in part because some of the early symptoms of schizophrenia in teenagers are common for typical development during teen years, such as:
- Withdrawal from friends and family
- A drop in performance at school
- Trouble sleeping
- Irritability or depressed mood
- Lack of motivation
Compared with schizophrenia symptoms in adults, teens may be:
- Less likely to have delusions
- More likely to have visual hallucinations
When to see a doctor
People with schizophrenia often lack awareness that their difficulties stem from a mental illness that requires medical attention. So it often falls to family or friends to get them help.
Helping someone who may have schizophrenia
If you think someone you know may have symptoms of schizophrenia, talk to him or her about your concerns. Although you can’t force someone to seek professional help, you can offer encouragement and support and help your loved one find a qualified doctor or mental health provider.
If your loved one poses a danger to self or others or can’t provide his or her own food, clothing or shelter, you may need to call 911 or other emergency responders for help so that your loved one might be evaluated by a mental health provider. In some cases, emergency hospitalization may be needed. Laws on involuntary commitment for mental health treatment vary by state. You can contact community mental health agencies or police departments in your area for details.
Suicidal thoughts and behavior
Suicidal thoughts and behavior are common among people with schizophrenia. If you have a loved one who is in danger of committing suicide or has made a suicide attempt, make sure someone stays with that person. Call 911 or your local emergency number immediately. Or, if you think you can do so safely, take the person to the nearest hospital emergency room.