What is schizophrenia?
Posted on 5 February 2016
There are many misconceptions around schizophrenia, a chronic brain disorder that affects how a person thinks, feels and behaves. We asked a Mediclinic expert to tell us more.
Schizophrenia, while quite rare, is a frightening and often misunderstood condition. People showing symptoms of or diagnosed with schizophrenia can often mistakenly be labelled ‘crazy’ or ‘dangerous’, which could lead to the person not getting the proper treatment and coping strategies they need to manage their illness.
‘Schizophrenia is the major devastating mental illness and commonly starts in young adulthood,’ says Dr Irvine Eidelman, a specialist psychiatrist at Mediclinic Constantiaberg. It is also quite common, with an incidence of about one in a 100 people.
Schizophrenia is often confused in the public realm with having a ‘split personality’ or multiple personality disorder, which is a different mental illness.
What are the symptoms of schizophrenia?
‘The characteristics of the illness are the psychotic symptoms of delusions, hallucinations and disordered thought which occur with no obvious cause and in the absence of brain disease, substance abuse and other mental illnesses which mimic schizophrenia,’ says Dr Eidelman.
Common symptoms may start appearing in late adolescence to early adulthood (the condition is rare in children, though not unheard of) and can include confused thinking, hearing voices and experiencing other hallucinations, a lack of motivation, and a failure to recognise what is real and what isn’t.
What causes schizophrenia?
There is no clear consensus on the causes, but two factors seem to play the biggest roles: genes and the environment.
While schizophrenia sometimes runs in families, no single gene that causes the illness has been isolated, making it impossible to predict who will develop schizophrenia. A recent groundbreaking study at the Broad Institute of MIT in the US has shown that people are more at risk of schizophrenia if they inherit genes that lead to excessive loss of healthy brain synapses during adolescence. This finding could open up new treatment options that don’t focus solely on the symptoms of psychosis. ‘This may be the beginning of a new era of research,’ Dr Eidelman says. ‘It offers hope for the future but right now it’s not a cure.’
It is also thought that environmental factors could influence the development of schizophrenia, including exposure to viruses and prenatal stressors such as malnutrition before birth.
How is schizophrenia treated?
Since there is no known cause, treatment usually focuses on ameliorating the symptoms. The illness is not only devastating but also expensive to treat, says Dr Eidelman. ‘The mainstay of treatment is early recognition, exclusion and treatment of other illnesses, and the use of antipsychotic medications, together with psychotherapy for the patient and their family,’ says Dr Eidelman.
How can you help someone with schizophrenia?
Schizophrenia is a difficult illness to understand and to cope with, but it’s important to remember that it’s a biological illness. If you know someone with schizophrenia, encourage them to stay in treatment and remember that their hallucinations seem very real to them, so be respectful, supportive and kind. Also look for a support group for families of schizophrenics in your area.