What is schizophrenia?

Schizophrenia is a mental illness that seriously affects the way a person acts, thinks and feels. Experiencing sensations and thoughts that other people do not, and difficulty in speaking rationally are some of the more common symptoms.

About one per cent of the population develops schizophrenia. It generally occurs in late adolescence or early adulthood, and, for many people, the disorder continues throughout life.

Some people develop schizophrenia gradually, while others have a sudden onset. It commonly occurs in sporadic episodes, between which an individual may return to relatively normal functioning.

People with schizophrenia are often not fully aware of their condition, which is commonly referred to as ‘lack of insight’. The illness can greatly affect social and occupational functioning, often resulting in withdrawal from family and friends, and an inability to work.

Myths about schizophrenia
Contrary to popular opinion, schizophrenia is not the same as multiple or split personalities. The common perception that people with schizophrenia are ‘dangerous’ is also untrue. They do not pose any greater risk to the public than other members of the general community.

What are the signs to look out for?

Early signs of a change in everyday functioning may occur in areas such as relationships, work or educational involvements. These might include increased suspiciousness, irritability, anger, tension, or depression. As with most illnesses, the best outcome results from early detection and intervention.

Schizophrenia may include the following symptoms:

  • Hallucinations: This involves experiencing sensations that other people do not, such as hearing false information or directions to act in certain ways. Hallucinations may trigger distress, or erratic behaviour.
  • Delusions: These are incorrect beliefs, such as misinterpreting events despite contrary, logical evidence. For example, some people believe others are persecuting them, or can read or control their mind. They may also think they have special powers.
  • Disorganisation: This involves struggling to think, speak or behave in a planned and logical manner. Disorganisation can also affect attention, memory and feelings.

Severe symptoms can lead to hospitalisation, despite the best attempts of family, friends, and health professionals to provide external care.

What causes schizophrenia?

Schizophrenia is a complex condition and no single cause has been identified. There are number of contributing factors, such as:

  • Genetics: A history of the disorder in the family;
  • Environmental and social stresses, such as very negative emotional relationships; and
  • Lifestyle factors, such as drug abuse.

How is schizophrenia treated and managed?

There are several specialised treatments that can help minimise disruptions, and improve self-management of symptoms and quality of life. Optimal treatment includes a combination of:

The use of anti-psychotic medication requires close consultation and contact with a treating psychiatrist, particularly for the management of possible side effects. Not everyone benefits from traditional medications, but recently developed drugs may work where others failed in the past.

Psychological interventions
The most common psychological intervention is Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT), which provides strategies to change thinking patterns and behaviours. This approach helps people with schizophrenia (and their families) to cope better with symptoms, which reduces stress and helps them gain control over their lives. Families can also benefit from psychoeducational family therapy, which provides a thorough understanding of the illness, as well as stress-reduction strategies. Any therapy should be provided by psychologists with extensive post-graduate training in the therapeutic management of mental health disorders.

Case management: Managing activities of daily living
Behavioural and social skills training also help people to function more effectively in daily life. Case management can co-ordinate therapeutic treatments and assist in areas ranging from socialising to budgeting and organising accommodation.Depending on the complexity of the issues, specialist input from psychologists and/or other professionals, such as occupational therapists or social workers, may be required. Some people also benefit from intensive case management and a structured rehabilitation program.

Who can help?

It is important that people with schizophrenia get treatment as soon as possible, especially if they are having suicidal thoughts. The APS Psychologist Referral Service can help you find a qualified and APS registered Psychologist with experience in treating and managing schizophrenia.