Schizophrenia is a severe, debilitating brain disorder that can cause people to see the world in unusual ways. People with schizophrenia often have bizarre and strange experiences, such as hearing or seeing things that others don’t see or hear.
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Schizophrenics may believe that others such as the FBI are after them, believe the government has implanted something in their brain to monitor their thoughts, or think that messages in television commercials are special communications intended only for them. When a person first develops these symptoms they may be frightened since they know something is wrong, but don’t know where the symptoms are coming from, or why no one else shares their experiences. After someone has had this disorder for a period of time however, these experiences seem normal and become the individual’s reality. Left untreated, this disorder may become less severe across the individual’s lifespan; however, since it is a brain disorder, the symptoms never truly remit. It may also be the case that, as opposed to symptoms becoming less serious over time, the individuals become so used to their symptoms they report them occurring less frequently than they actually do, or that are not as severe as they once were. This can make treatment very hard, due to the fact that when individuals come to feel their experiences are normal, taking mediation that alters what they perceive to be reality can frighten them in the same manner the initial experience of the hallucinations and delusions did.
A common misconception about schizophrenia is that individuals with this disorder are psychotic 100% of the time. In fact, many individuals with schizophrenia go through periods during which they are not experiencing psychotic symptoms. Additionally, unless they are displaying disorganized behavior or catatonia, there may be no visual clues that there is anything unusual about the individual. It is only when the person begins to speak in a way that reflects their troubled thought processes that it becomes clear there is something different about them.
While these symptoms may seem frightening for the individual, as well as for those in the individual’s life, schizophrenia is a treatable illness. Better medications that control all the symptoms of schizophrenia, and not just a certain subset of symptoms, have been developed in recent years and have been shown to help many people suffering from schizophrenia to lead normal, satisfying lives.
Statistics of Schizophrenia
The lifetime prevalence rate of schizophrenia is estimated at .5 percent. New cases diagnosed in the U.S. have been estimated to be around 3 new cases in every 10,000 people. Schizophrenia has been reported in every country in the world, though there are variations based on race/ethnicity, countries, and geographic origin for immigrants to this country.
Causes of Schizophrenia
Schizophrenia is believed to be caused by several different factors. These include:
Genetic: It has long been known that schizophrenia runs in families. Twin studies have shown that when one identical twin has schizophrenia, the other twin develops it around 50% of the time. However this statistic leaves a lot of room for other influences on the development of the disorder, since it does not affect both identical twins in every situation. Thus, it is recognized that no individual gene, or even group of genes, can explain the development of schizophrenia and that it is most likely an interaction of dozens or even hundreds of genes the alter brain development, combined with environmental influences.
Environmental Factors: There are several environmental factors believed to contribute to the development of schizophrenia. These include prenatal exposure to toxins or viruses, maternal malnutrition while pregnant, birth complications, and chronic stress.
Brain Chemistry: Some evidence supports the theory that imbalances in neurotransmitters, or chemicals responsible for neuronal communication, in the brain may also effect the development of schizophrenia. When the levels of these chemicals are out of balance, it is thought that communication in the brain may not reflect reality, leading to some of the strange symptoms that are part of schizophrenia.
Brain Structure: There is also support for the hypothesis that certain structures in the brain are shaped differently in individuals with schizophrenia compared to those without. In particular, the ventricles, which are structures filled with fluid found at the back of the brain, are larger in individuals with schizophrenia.
Family Factors: Observations of families with a schizophrenic member have shown that those who display “high expressed emotion,” defined as negative, critical, or judgmental interaction patterns with parents being overinvolved in their children’s lives, can lead to negative parent- child interactions. This has also been linked to the development of schizophrenia.
Signs and Symptoms of Schizophrenia
There are a number of signs and symptoms that are characteristic of schizophrenia. They include what are termed as positive and negative symptoms.
Positive symptoms include what are believed to be excesses or distortions in normal behavior. These include:
- Delusions – false beliefs
- Hallucinations – perceived sensations, although any discernible stimuli which may be causing them are absent.
- Disorganized Speech – such as suddenly stopping speech in the middle of a sentence or speaking in “word salads,” meaning stringing together meaningless words
- Disorganized or catatonic behavior – confusion about where the individual had intended to go or taking illogical routes; catatonia can sometimes take the form of an individual freezing in a waxy immobility, holding poses for hours to days.
Negative symptoms include what are believed to be deficits in behavior or diminished behavior. These include:
- Seeming to be unable to experience or express emotions
- Absence of motivation
- Loss of interest in previously enjoyable activities
- Lack of goal directed behavior
- Inability to experience positive emotions
- Inability to plan or complete activities
- Poor personal hygiene
- Social withdrawal
Effects of Schizophrenia
There are a number of ways that this disorder effects a person’s life. These include:
- Suicidal thoughts or actions
- Self-injurious behavior
- Addiction to alcohol, drugs, or prescription medications
- Financial problems or poverty
- Family discord
- Inability to complete tasks at work or school
- Physical side effects, leading to medical problems resulting from antipsychotic medications
- Becoming either a victim or perpetrator of a violent offense
- Cardiac disease, may or may not be linked to heavy smoking
- Impediment of regular daily activities
- Inability to take care of normal responsibilities in various areas of life