Imagine that you live in a world you can’t quite understand. You believe that people are trying to steal your thoughts and broadcast them far and wide, and although you explain this to everyone you meet, they rarely understand you. In fact, many people seem afraid of you, and the voices in your head tell you to stop speaking altogether. Your mind reels, and you feel isolated and alone. This is the world of someone who is living with an untreated case of schizophrenia.
Contrary to common belief, most people with schizophrenia do not spend each day committing or plotting violent acts. They may feel wild and upset, but they may keep it all inside. With treatment, however, many of these terrible symptoms can ease or go away completely. In fact, many people with schizophrenia go on to live successful, healthy lives. They may hold down jobs, participate in loving relationships, raise children and volunteer in their communities. While schizophrenia is a chronic disease, and some symptoms of schizophrenia can certainly be frightening, it can be adequately treated.
Schizophrenia is a mental disorder that causes severe disruptions in the way a person thinks and feels. People who have schizophrenia may have difficulty determining what is real and what is unreal, and they may have trouble thinking logically or expressing themselves clearly. People with schizophrenia tend to have symptoms in three sets of groups: positive, negative and cognitive.
Positive symptoms typically include psychotic behaviors. These symptoms may be mild and easy to ignore, or they may be large and frightening to observe. Common positive symptoms include:
- Hallucinations, such as hearing voices no one else can hear. The voices might give commands, or they might simply act as council for the person, giving advice. The person rarely understands that these voices are not real. According to the Mayo Clinic, hearing voices is the most common schizophrenia symptom, but people might also feel fingers touching their skin or they might smell odors no one else can smell.
- Delusions, such as believing the television is transmitting the person’s thoughts or that aliens have stolen the person’s brain. People with schizophrenia may persist in these delusions, even when they are shown incontrovertible proof that the delusion is false. They may simply stop talking about their beliefs, but they may still be convinced that they are true.
- Disorganization, which is often displayed as an inability to complete a sentence. The person might begin a statement and stop abruptly, mentioning that the idea has been stolen. Some people garble words together in a tangle that can’t be unraveled. Some people may spread papers or books far and wide and be unable to find anything they’re looking for.
- Movement disorders, such as repeating the same action over and over or being unable to move at all. Catatonia, in which the person is completely unable to move, was a common schizophrenia symptom in years past, but treatments have made it rare to uncommon today.
Negative symptoms are often mistaken for depression, and they can be hard to detect. These symptoms include:
- Speaking in a monotone voice, with no inflection whatsoever. The person may sound robotic or recorded.
- Refusing to talk at all. Some people give only one-word answers to common questions, and this speech seems to take a significant amount of effort.
- Seeming unwilling to begin or complete an activity. Some people will just sit quietly for hours without doing anything.
- A lack of happiness and enthusiasm. The person might not cry or take an active role to express the sadness, but may simply seem deeply unhappy and unable to talk about the cause.
Cognitive symptoms have to do with the way person thinks or processes information, and these symptoms may not appear until the person is given a series of tests by a medical professional. In those tests, the person may demonstrate an inability to remember details or have trouble following simple instructions. These tests may be incredibly frustrating for the person to take.
Research suggests that there is a hereditary component to schizophrenia. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), 10 percent of people with a parent or sibling who has schizophrenia will also develop the disease. NIMH also states that risk is highest in identical twins. If one twin has the disease, the other has a 40 to 65 percent chance of developing the disease.
Other researchers believe that some forms of infections developed by women during pregnancy can cause schizophrenia. Again, researchers aren’t clear about which infections could cause the disease, and they don’t quite know when the women would have to develop the infections in order to put their babies at risk, but the link does seem to be pervasive.
Still other studies suggest that nutrition plays a role. In one interesting study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry, people who took fatty acid supplements were less likely to develop psychotic symptoms of schizophrenia than people who did not take the supplements. In fact, only 4.9 percent of people who took the supplements developed psychosis, compared to 27.5 percent of people who did not.
Experts agree, however, that schizophrenia cannot be diagnosed with a simple saliva test. According to an article published by NIMH, many retailers sell tests that promise to diagnose schizophrenia in mere minutes with a small sample of saliva. These tests are rarely, if ever, effective as the disease is often caused by a wide variety of factors that all play together. It’s impossible to test for all of those factors using a small sample of saliva.
While the risk of violence in schizophrenia is low, it is not completely absent. People who have schizophrenia may rarely head out on violent sprees and injure people they do not know. They may, however, become delusional in the home and attack their family and their caregivers. This could be devastating for the family as well as for the person with schizophrenia.
There is also a clear and documented link between schizophrenia and suicide. Living with voices and other hallucinations, year after year, can take its toll. Combining those hallucinations with persistent delusions that someone will hurt you and feeling unable to express those thoughts could be incredibly isolating, and suicide could seem like the only way to make the situation better.
People who have schizophrenia rarely know that they have the disease. It’s common for many people who have mental disorders to believe that they are actually “normal” and others are ill, but this belief is incredibly prevalent in those who have schizophrenia. In fact, according to a study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry found that people who had schizophrenia scored lower on tests of self-awareness than did people who had any other form of mental illness.
Since the people aren’t aware of their own illnesses, they are extremely unlikely to ask for help on their own. They just don’t know that there is anything wrong, so they’re not motivated to find a solution. Often, they need medications in order to even be convinced that they have a disease in the first place.
Schizophrenia is a complicated disease, and there’s no question that it’s hard to treat but, it’s certainly not impossible. Medical professionals often must handle the details, however. A family’s role here is to help the person enter a treatment program, and then encourage the person to stick with the therapies. Some families may need to enter their own therapeutic programs so they can learn how to support the person they love as they move toward recovery.