What is Schizophrenia?


Schizophrenia is a medical illness that affects about 2.2 million Americans.  Usually the first signs of schizophrenia emerge in adolescence or between the ages of 20 and 30 years.  This disorder of the brain interferes with the individual’s ability to think clearly, control his/her emotions, make decisions, and relate to others.  Many people with schizophrenia hear and see things that are not real.

Studies have linked schizophrenia to chemical and structural changes in the brain, and some of these changes may be present in the first years of life.  Like cancer or diabetes, schizophrenia is a chronic and complex medical condition that affects different people in different ways.  A person with schizophrenia does not have a “split personality,” and most people with this illness are not dangerous, especially when they are receiving treatment.

The symptoms of this disorder can also be found in other brain disorders.  In addition, a person’s symptoms may change over time.  There is no laboratory test for schizophrenia, but usually when a mental health expert observes the symptoms and course of the disease for six months or more, it is possible to diagnose the patient with this disorder.

The following are some of the symptoms an individual with schizophrenia may display:

• Thought disorders: Patients may have difficulties understanding signals, sounds, and thoughts.  They may have trouble connecting thoughts logically.  It may be difficult to understand them when they speak; communication is done in a garbled way.  They stop speaking abruptly in the middle of a sentence; this is called “thought blocking.”  These patients may also use neologism, or the use of meaningless words.

• Hallucinations and delusions: Hallucinations are those things that no one can see, smell, feel, or hear, other than the person with this disorder.  A significant number of patients with schizophrenia hear voices.  This is probably one of the most common hallucinations a patient experiences.  Delusions are created ideas that are totally false.  For example, some believe they are God or that they can control the minds of others.  They may also believe that people on television are talking directly to them.

• Disorganized behavior: The person may behave like a child or even have unpredictable agitation.  Disorganized behavior may impair the ability to function or carry out daily activities, such as showering or dressing.

• Other changes in behavior: Schizophrenia can cause people to move slowly, making repetitive movements over and over, or to move in a ritualistic way.

Fortunately, there are pharmacological treatments that can help reduce the symptoms of this disease.  Among the most common drugs to treat schizophrenia are antipsychotics.  Psychotherapy and vocational and social rehabilitation are also important.  When there is an imminent risk to the patient or those around, a licensed mental health professional can start an involuntary hospitalization.

Educating and informing the patient and family about this disease is important during treatment.  The person who is suffering from this disease and their families must learn to recognize the symptoms and accept and often learn to live with the disorder.

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