Schizophrenia is a serious mental disorder that affects about 1% of the general population. The onset of schizophrenia can be quite quick. Someone who has previously been healthy and coped well with their usual activities and relationships can develop psychosis (loss of contact with reality) over a number of weeks. That said, symptoms may also develop slowly, with the ability to function in everyday life declining over a number of years.
This complex illness is characterised by ‘psychosis’.
'Psychosis' is a word used to describe the following group of symptoms:
- Disorder of thoughts (e.g. delusions - false beliefs held in spite of evidence that they are not real)
- Perceptions (e.g. hallucinations - seeing, hearing or feeling things which are not there)
- Disorganised speech
- Grossly disorganised behaviour (which is not experienced by others and which is not seen as abnormal by the sufferer).
These four symptoms are often referred to as the ‘Positive Symptoms’ of schizophrenia because they are the result of the disease process.
The fifth group of symptoms describes the moods of a person with developing schizophrenia. They are usually referred to as ‘Negative Symptoms’ because they represent a loss of normal functions:
- Loss of motivation, interest or pleasure in things. Everyday tasks such as washing up become difficult.
- Mood changes –You'll tell friends you're feeling great or never better. However, your ‘happy’ behaviour will be recognised as excessive by friends or family. You may also be quite unresponsive and be unable to express joy or sadness.
- Social withdrawal –people may notice that you become very careless in your dress and self-care, or have periods of seeming to do little and periods of being extremely active.
The strongest feature of schizophrenia is loss of insight – the loss of awareness that the experiences and difficulties you have are the result of your illness. It is a particular feature of psychotic illnesses, and is the reason why the Mental Health Act (1992) has been developed to ensure people with these conditions can get the assessment and treatment they need.
Schizophrenia affects different people in different ways. Some people may experience only a few short episodes and then fully recover. For others it lasts throughout their lives and needs to be treated like any other physical illness such as asthma or diabetes.
It is important that schizophrenia is treated as soon as it is diagnosed by a psychiatrist to prevent long-term disability and loss of function.
Schizophrenia may be treated using a number of different approaches:
- Talking therapies and counselling
- Looking after physical wellbeing/ health
- Psychosocial education programs e.g. education, support, counselling and assistance to return to job/studies/performing daily tasks
- Ongoing support e.g. housing, monitoring of treatment, support groups.