Reviewing the Facts About Schizophrenia
To dispel myths about schizophrenia, it is critical to understand the frequency and seriousness of this mental health condition.
Close to 3.5 million people in the United States live with a diagnosis of schizophrenia, making it one of the top 15 leading causes of disability.
Most people who have schizophrenia do not receive the care they require. They are less likely to seek the medical care they need compared to people with other mental health issues.
People with schizophrenia often also have physical illnesses, making the life expectancy of a person with schizophrenia about 20% lower than the general population.
High blood pressure and high cholesterol are not uncommon. Schizophrenia is also commonly associated with the metabolic syndrome that can cause type 2 diabetes and insulin insensitivity.
In addition, close to half of all people who are diagnosed with schizophrenia also struggle with a secondary mental health issue.
Mental illness can lead to significant financial problems. However, people diagnosed with schizophrenia face an even higher financial burden.
Between one-third and one-half of all adults who are homeless in the U.S. have been diagnosed with schizophrenia.
People with schizophrenia are also at greater risk of being involved in the criminal justice system and are more likely to be unable to work, or to struggle with other social problems.
Unfortunately, there is also a greater risk of dying at a younger age compared to the average person. Close to 5% of people with schizophrenia end up taking their own lives, a significantly higher rate than the total population.
People living with schizophrenia are at a greater risk of dying by suicide immediately after their diagnosis than later in life.
A diagnosis of schizophrenia doesn’t always mean a bad outcome. A study conducted at USC interviewed 20 men and women who effectively managed their psychotic symptoms while managing employment. They adopted coping strategies, engaged with supportive peers, and practiced cognitive strategies to help them reason through problematic thoughts.
Approximately half of patients with schizophrenia recover or have significant improvements over time, which can lead to a productive, fulfilling life.
Who Is Most Likely To Be Diagnosed With Schizophrenia?
While the overall cause of the condition is unclear, it is likely that more than one factor plays a role in who may develop schizophrenia. Some important risk factors include family history and biological factors.
Schizophrenia can run in families. This does not mean that because one family member has been diagnosed, everyone else will get it. It simply means that schizophrenia can have a genetic component.
Because genes are passed down from parents to children, it is possible for multiple people in the same family to be diagnosed. But no single gene can cause schizophrenia by itself.
A positive family history could mean that relatives are more likely to develop the condition. It’s important to talk to your providers about family history of any health conditions—including schizophrenia—so they can determine any heightened risk you or a loved one may have.
Someone’s environment could contribute to the development of schizophrenia. People who live in poverty, are exposed to high or chronic levels of stress, or who use drugs on a regular basis could be more likely to develop the condition. It is important to screen for social factors when considering a diagnosis.
Previous History of Mental Health Issues
It is not unusual for someone with schizophrenia to be diagnosed with other mental health issues, such as depression or substance use disorder. Anyone who has another mental health issue is at a greater risk of developing schizophrenia compared to the overall population.
People with schizophrenia likely have differences in the way neurons in their brains communicate using neurotransmitters. For example, differences in the size of certain brain structures could contribute to the development of the condition.
There are many changes in brain structure that occur during puberty, including issues with dopamine, a “feel-good” chemical the brain makes. These changes could trigger episodes of psychosis in individuals who are already at risk of psychotic episodes due to genetic and environmental exposures.
How Schizophrenia Is Diagnosed
Often people with schizophrenia are diagnosed with other mental health issues first. Before making a diagnosis of schizophrenia, it is important to make sure the symptoms displayed are not developing due to medications, a substance use disorder, or another medical condition.
Below we’ve outlined the steps a medical team will take to diagnose schizophrenia. It may seem like a lot, but not every person’s diagnosis will include all these steps.
First, the doctor takes a thorough medical history. It is important to find out what the symptoms are and when they showed up. It’s also important to know if any treatments have been tried. This helps the doctor develop a differential diagnosis, which could include schizophrenia.
The doctor may perform a physical exam to rule out other problems that could be causing symptoms. It is also important to check for any related complications.
The doctor may order several lab tests. These check for underlying issues that could be contributing to symptoms. For example, it is possible for electrolyte disturbances to impact the overall functioning of the central nervous system, which could contribute to many of the same symptoms. The doctor may also screen for alcohol and drugs, as some drugs can contribute to hallucinatory symptoms.
The doctor may order imaging scans, such as a CT scan or MRI. People who have suffered a brain injury may show many of the signs and symptoms of schizophrenia. This type of injury may be identifiable on an imaging scan.
To make a diagnosis of schizophrenia, it is important to involve a licensed mental health professional. They can conduct a thorough evaluation of someone’s mental health, including observing their demeanor, appearance, and possible hallucinations. They also look for evidence of schizophrenia in a family history.
Schizophrenia Can Be Treated
Untreated schizophrenia can lead to significant quality-of-life issues. However, symptoms can be managed with a well-rounded treatment plan.
Like other mental health conditions, treatment for schizophrenia may involve both prescription medications and therapy. However, not every person’s experience of schizophrenia is the same, so what works for one person may not work for another.
It is important for anyone experiencing symptoms to immediately seek help from a trained medical professional. The earlier schizophrenia is diagnosed, the sooner treatment can start, which can make a world of difference in someone’s overall prognosis.
One pillar of the treatment process involves antipsychotic medications, which are designed to reduce the frequency and intensity of psychotic symptoms. Many antipsychotic medications are available, though many also have side effects. These include restlessness, dry mouth, drowsiness, and weight gain.
Side effects often subside over time; however, there are situations where they persist. If this is the case, people may be tempted to stop taking antipsychotic medications abruptly.
It is critical for patients to keep taking antipsychotic medications. Stopping medication leads to dangerous side effects and rebound symptoms. The symptoms of schizophrenia become notably worse if medication is stopped “cold turkey.”