What is Schizophrenia?
Schizophrenia is a serious mental disorder in which people interpret reality abnormally. Schizophrenia may result in some combination of hallucinations, delusions, and extremely disordered thinking and behaviour that impairs daily functioning, and can be disabling.
People with schizophrenia require lifelong treatment. Early treatment may help get symptoms under control before serious complications develop and may help improve the long-term outlook.
What causes Schizophrenia?
Medical researchers have not been able to find the exact causes of schizophrenia. Research now tells us that the disorder is linked to abnormalities in the structure of the brain. There are also some factors that are believed to put a person at a greater risk of developing schizophrenia:
- Genetic factors: Having a parent or sibling with schizophrenia puts the person at increased risk
- A chemical imbalance in the brain
- Problems during pregnancy: The child may develop schizophrenia if the mother does not receive proper nutrition, or is exposed to viral illnesses during pregnancy
Extreme stress and overuse of drugs and alcohol can worsen any existing symptoms of schizophrenia.
Symptoms of Schizophrenia
Schizophrenia involves a range of problems with thinking (cognition), behaviour and emotions. Signs and symptoms may vary, but usually involve delusions, hallucinations or disorganized speech, and reflect an impaired ability to function. Symptoms may include:
- Delusions. These are false beliefs that are not based in reality. For example, you think that you’re being harmed or harassed; certain gestures or comments are directed at you; you have exceptional ability or fame; another person is in love with you; or a major catastrophe is about to occur. Delusions occur in most people with schizophrenia.
- Hallucinations. These usually involve seeing or hearing things that don’t exist. Yet for the person with schizophrenia, they have the full force and impact of a normal experience. Hallucinations can be in any of the senses, but hearing voices is the most common hallucination.
- Disorganized thinking (speech). Disorganized thinking is inferred from disorganized speech. Effective communication can be impaired, and answers to questions may be partially or completely unrelated. Rarely, speech may include putting together meaningless words that can’t be understood, sometimes known as word salad.
- Extremely disorganized or abnormal motor behaviour. This may show in a number of ways, from childlike silliness to unpredictable agitation. Behaviour isn’t focused on a goal, so it’s hard to do tasks. Behaviour can include resistance to instructions, inappropriate or bizarre posture, a complete lack of response, or useless and excessive movement.
- Negative symptoms. This refers to reduced or lack of ability to function normally. For example, the person may neglect personal hygiene or appear to lack emotion (doesn’t make eye contact, doesn’t change facial expressions or speaks in a monotone). Also, the person may lose interest in everyday activities, socially withdraw or lack the ability to experience pleasure.
What’s the treatment for Schizophrenia?
Schizophrenia is usually treated with a combination of medication and therapy appropriate to each individual. In most cases, this will be antipsychotic medicines and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).
People with schizophrenia will usually receive help from a community mental health team (CMHT), which will offer day-to-day support and treatment.
Many people recover from schizophrenia, although they may have periods when symptoms return (relapses). Support and treatment can help reduce the impact the condition has on your life.
What is the life expectancy of someone with Schizophrenia?
Most studies of schizophrenia show a life expectancy reduction of 10–20 years.
People with schizophrenia often die at a considerably younger age than the rest of the population. Reasons for this include: late diagnosis and poor treatment of physical illnesses, metabolic side effects of antipsychotic medication, unhealthy lifestyle and high risk of suicide.
Schizophrenia and smoking
Thanks to research advances, scientists are learning how and why smoking and schizophrenia are so tightly linked. Nicotine — in cigarettes and other forms — appears to help normalize some of the cognitive and sensory deficits that people with this disorder experience. Scientists have looked inside the brain to uncover regions involved in deficits of schizophrenia and to learn how and where nicotine works to combat them.
Scientists have found that smoking and schizophrenia are tightly linked, but are not sure why. Could nicotine actually be helping the disorder? If so, then it is a double-edged sword, because smoking is a life-threatening behaviour.
These people are already destined for a shorter life and switching to a safer nicotine delivery method like e-cigarettes could benefit them greatly from tobacco harm reduction.