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All about schizophrenia

Let’s look at what schizophrenia is, and how to cope and get support if you have this condition.

Young person standing with a blurred kaleidoscope of themselves on either side

What is schizophrenia?

Schizophrenia is a severe mental disorder that alters a person’s thoughts, behaviours and experience of reality, and has a significant impact on their ability to function in everyday life. 

It is a very common condition, affecting 1 in 100 people.

Contrary to media representation and popular belief, schizophrenia does not involve having ‘split’ or ‘multiple’ personalities.

Symptoms can come and go, and not everybody experiences the same symptoms.

Symptoms of schizophrenia – psychosis

Schizophrenia causes ‘psychosis’, a group of symptoms which includes:

Disordered behaviour – strange actions or gestures, or showing inappropriate emotions in the wrong context, e.g. laughing at a funeral. 

Disordered thoughts and speech – thoughts that struggle to form or come all at once, stopping mid-sentence, sentences that don’t make sense, etc.

Delusions – a belief that conflicts with reality. A person in a delusional state can’t let go of their belief, even when faced with evidence to the contrary or rational argument. For example, someone believing their body is made out of glass.

Catatonic behaviour – this is when there is a disconnect between your thoughts and movements. Some people might be unresponsive (frozen), agitated, copy/repeat others’ words or movements, or be unable to speak.

Hallucinations – perceiving something not there. A distorted reality that feels very real. For example, seeing, hearing or smelling things that aren’t there.

Symptoms of schizophrenia – other

Some people with schizophrenia may also experience other symptoms, like reduced emotional expression (e.g. being ‘flat’), low motivation, or loss of interest or pleasure in things they used to enjoy.

Other common symptoms include memory difficulties, trouble concentrating, behaviour issues, and lack of personal hygiene.

These things can have an impact on other aspects of life, such as making it hard to do well at education or work, or affecting relationships with family and friends.

People who don’t know much about mental health can misunderstand schizophrenia and think that people who are experiencing it are dangerous or violent. This misconception can be really damaging and stigmatising for those experiencing schizophrenia.

Schizophrenia and the brain

The causes of schizophrenia are really complex and it’s likely that there is no single cause. Things like genetics, drug and alcohol use, and life experiences can all play a role.

Schizophrenia is a biological disease that directly affects the brain. Brain scans of people with long term, untreated schizophrenia have shown a range of changes in the brain, including reduced brain size and grey matter. Research into schizophrenia and the brain is ongoing. 

One theory about the causes of schizophrenia is called the ‘dopamine hypothesis’. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter (chemical messenger) that plays a significant role in things like learning, mood, sleep, attention, movement, motivation and reward/pleasure. It’s theorised that dopamine dysfunction (too much or too little) may play a role in some of the symptoms of schizophrenia.

Treatment for schizophrenia

Schizophrenia is a progressive, long-term disorder, but it is also treatable. It can be managed, you can live a fulfilling life and many people with schizophrenia improve (and may even become symptom-free).

Seeking professional help

It’s essential to get properly diagnosed and create an ongoing treatment plan, which may involve medication.

See a GP or psychiatrist. Diagnosis and early treatment is really important, as schizophrenia can get worse with time if left untreated. A GP or psychiatrist will create a treatment plan with you and provide support.

Stick to the treatment plan, even if you’re feeling better. Relapses are common in schizophrenia. Sometimes they are caused by people changing doses or going off their medication without the support of their treating GP/psychiatrist, as a result of feeling better or experiencing unwanted side effects.

Accept your diagnosis and take it seriously. Keep communicating with your treating GP/psychiatrist and be honest about symptoms, self-help options, medication usage, side effects from medication, etc. You have a right to know about and understand all aspects of your diagnosis and treatment, so if you feel confused, don’t understand something or want more information, let your GP/psychiatrist know.

Discuss medication. Medication is a treatment for schizophrenia, but not a cure. Most medications focus on treating psychotic symptoms, such as hallucinations.

Never change your medication dosage or stop taking medication without guidance from your GP/psychiatrist.

Planning to cope and thrive

Managing an ongoing disorder requires a bit of planning, but it’s an important part of the journey.

  • Have a relapse plan. Relapse isn’t a personal failure – it’s normal. Having a relapse plan that helps you identify triggers and warning signs, as well as knowing what you can do to prevent relapse (safety plan) and who can help (supports) is very important.
  • Self-care. Stress can play a role in symptoms getting worse, which means that looking after yourself by getting enough sleep, eating nutrient rich foods and exercising regularly is an important part of stress reduction and management. 
  • Self-help. Doing things, you enjoy, or finding strategies to help manage symptoms can be incredibly helpful and empowering. These might include things like meditation, challenging unhelpful self-talk, finding purpose, or engaging with support groups.

Family and friends play an important role supporting someone they care about living with schizophrenia. If you know someone who has or may have this condition, check out our article on supporting someone with schizophrenia

You don’t have to cope on your own.

Telling someone and getting support can make a difference

You might be feeling scared or embarrassed to ask for help, but talking to someone about what you’re going through can really help. Give us a call, start a WebChat or send us an email today.

This content was last reviewed 08/09/2020

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