Schizophrenia is a serious psychiatric disorder involving delusions, hallucinations, paranoia and terrifying thoughts. Research has shown that approximately one percent of the population suffer with this condition.
The symptoms of schizophrenia most often become evident in early adulthood, beginning a bit earlier in men than in women. In addition to seeing and hearing things that are not present, schizophrenic patients may believe that other people have invaded their minds or are controlling their thoughts. They may perceive themselves to be in grave danger. With such disturbing thoughts, it is no wonder that patients with this disorder behave in bizarre ways, express garbled ideas, and have difficulty living their lives in the real world.
Causes of Schizophrenia
Inroads have been made in the research of this disorder which appears to have important genetic, as well as some environmental, roots. There is evidence that schizophrenia runs in certain families and in fact the risk of developing the disorder increases significantly when an individual has a family member who suffers from the disease.
Genetic mutations and abnormalities in the brain are found much more frequently in patients with schizophrenia that in the average individual. It is postulated that there may be anomalies present at birth, but that changes occurring in the brain during puberty precipitate the disorder. It is unclear which environmental influences may be at play in the development of schizophrenia, but it is possible that substance abuse is a factor.
Symptoms of Schizophrenia
The symptoms of schizophrenia are categorized into three groups. The first two are observable, but the third category may only be diagnosable through psychological and neurological testing. Whatever the combination of symptoms experienced by the individual schizophrenic patient, these symptoms are disabling, leading to difficulty in relationships and in employment.
Patients with schizophrenia exhibit abnormal thinking and experience visual and auditory hallucinations. They may be plagued by delusions, or false beliefs, and may be awkward in their body movements.
Schizophrenic patients may appear extremely detached, withdrawing from relationships and activities to the point that they seem not to be participating in everyday life. They may stop interacting with others, speak less and less, and even become unwilling or unable to maintain a normal hygiene routine.
The cognitive symptoms of schizophrenia are more subtle, but difficulties with absorbing information, problems with memory and inability to concentrate may be signs of the disorder. Preoccupied with the troubled and troubling workings of their own minds, patients become incapable of relating to, or coping with, the external world.
Treatment of Schizophrenia
While schizophrenia cannot be cured at the present time, there are various treatments for the disorder. These include a variety of psychotropic medications and several types of psychotherapy.
More and more antipsychotic medications are being researched and made available so that where decades ago there were only a few possible pharmacological treatments, there are now a great many. This is very important because many antipsychotics have serious side effects but reactions may be somewhat idiosyncratic, so psychiatrists can use trial and error to see which medications are most effective and least troublesome. In addition to the old standbys like Thorazine and Haldol, a new generation of antipsychotics became available in the 1990s. The newer medications have been remarkably helpful to patients not responsive to earlier drugs.
Most psychotropic medications may have serious side effects so patients have to be monitored closely. Clozaril (clozapine), a very effective relatively new antipsychotic medication, can cause agranulocytosis which can make an individual unable to fight off infection. Patients who are prescribed this medication have to have regular white blood cell counts to avoid this problem. Other side effects of medications for schizophrenia include:
- Skin rashes
- Sun sensitivity
- Blurred vision
- Lightheadedness upon standing
- Menstrual difficulties
- Weight gain
- Increased risk of diabetes or high cholesterol
- Muscle rigidity or spasms
- Tremors or restlessness
Long-term use of some antipsychotic medications may result in tardive dyskinesia which causes involuntary movements, especially around the mouth. Symptoms of tardive dyskinesia may be be mild or severe and may be permanent.
Once psychotic symptoms are under some control, various forms of psychotherapy can help schizophrenic patients adjust to their illness. Cognitive behavioral therapy has been found to assist in symptom management. Other psychosocial treatments, whether provided as individual or group therapy, can assist patients in improving their affected communication and life skills and refining their coping mechanisms. Patients in ongoing therapy are more likely to be medication-compliant, and less likely to have relapses requiring hospitalization.