What is schizophrenia?
Schizophrenia is a serious mental illness that affects thinking, emotions and behaviour. It is the most common form of psychosis.
Over a lifetime, about 1 in 100 people will develop schizophrenia. It is most likely to start between the ages of 15 and 35 years, but can sometimes occur in younger children. The illness might last for a long time and can be very disabling.
What causes schizophrenia?
We do not know the exact cause of schizophrenia, although it does seem to relate to chemical imbalances in the brain.
Research shows that having parents or close relatives with mental illness, experiencing stress and using drugs like cannabis can all be associated with having schizophrenia.
What are the symptoms?
Schizophrenia affects everybody differently. There are two groups of symptoms, which are described as ‘positive’ and ‘negative’. This doesn’t mean some are good and some are bad; more that some are about ‘doing’ things or experiencing symptoms and some are about ‘not doing’ things (see below). Young people with schizophrenia often have a mixture of the two.
Sometimes, the illness develops slowly and can be hard to spot, although some young people become unwell very quickly.
Strange beliefs or delusions are very strongly held beliefs that are not only untrue, but can seem quite bizarre. The young person may believe that they are someone different, a world leader or celebrity for example, or they may believe that other people are ‘out to get them’. They will believe this is true no matter what you say.
Thought disorder is when someone is not thinking straight and it is hard to make sense of what they are saying. Their ideas may be jumbled up, but it is more than being muddled or confused.
Hallucinations are when someone sees, hears, smells or feels something that isn’t really there. The most common hallucination that people have is hearing voices. In schizophrenia, hallucinations are totally real to the person having them. This can be very frightening and can make them believe that they are being watched or picked on. People who are having these experiences may act strangely. For example, they may talk or laugh to themselves or appear to be talking to somebody that you can’t see.
The young person suffering from schizophrenia can become withdrawn and appear unemotional. They seem to lose interest, stop washing regularly and can spend a lot of time on their own.
They may not be able to carry on with their normal activities, and usually find it difficult to concentrate on work or study.
Some young people can become frustrated and angry even towards their own family. Others may take drugs or drink alcohol to feel better. Some find the symptoms so distressing that they want to self-harm.
Despite how they are described in the media, people suffering from schizophrenia are not more dangerous or violent than anyone else. However, they may come across as worrying and unpredictable, especially when they feel frightened by their strange experiences.
What is the treatment for schizophrenia?
Medications called ‘antipsychotics’ are an important part of the treatment of schizophrenia. They treat the symptoms of the illness, but tend to be more effective with positive symptoms than negative symptoms. Hallucinations and delusions may take weeks and sometimes months to improve. Unfortunately, schizophrenia can recur, and may need long-term treatment.
A number of different antipsychotics are available, and the psychiatrist will advise which is the best for your child. Sometimes, several different drugs will need to be tried to find the most effective for a particular young person..
As with all medication, there can be side-effects. The psychiatrists will advise on these and what can be done to help. The risk of side-effects needs to be balanced against the risk of the damaging effects of the illness on a young person’s life.