What Is Schizophrenia?
Schizophrenia is a debilitating mental condition — a brain disorder that causes its victims to severely lose touch with reality. When someone becomes schizophrenic, it involves a breakdown between their thought, emotion and behavior processes. This creates a jumbled perception, difficulty performing everyday activities and persistent delusions or hallucinations in many cases.
More than 3 million people in the U.S. live with this disorder, with equal representation across gender and race. Victims typically show symptoms for 1–2 years before getting diagnosed with schizophrenia. Nearly half of schizophrenia patients also have a substance use disorder — a diagnosable problem with drugs or alcohol — with one study showing rates of marijuana problems as high as 53%. Co-occurring substance problems can increase the severity of schizophrenia symptoms, increase rates of hospitalization, weaken a patient’s response to treatment and increase the likelihood of infectious illnesses, violence, victimization and homelessness. Only around 90,000 of Americans with schizophrenia or a similar mental illness are receiving treatment at any given time.
It’s nearly impossible to predict when someone will develop schizophrenia, and a proven cure is elusive. This makes schizophrenia a chaotic and highly difficult illness for the patient and their loved ones, as well as the doctors attempting to meet with these patients.
Types of Schizophrenia
Doctors have divided schizophrenia into 5 different types. Although they share major similarities, they each have distinguishing characteristics that call for different approaches in diagnosis and treatment.
The different types of schizophrenia are:
- Paranoid Schizophrenia – the patient feels suspicious and persecuted on a constant basis, with prominent hallucinations or delusions
- Disorganized Schizophrenia – the patient’s thought process is highly disorganized, impairing their speech, thought and even routine tasks
- Catatonic Schizophrenia – the patient show disturbances in their movement, assumes unusual positions, and is typically withdrawn and often silent
- Residual Schizophrenia – after a phase of heavy symptoms such as delusions, these patients show some improvement, but a diminished motivation and interest in life
- Undifferentiated Schizophrenia – when a patient has various and fluctuating symptoms of schizophrenia, but cannot easily be pinned down to one type
Is There Schizophrenia in Teens?
Onset of schizophrenia usually occurs in the 20s or 30s, but early symptoms can appear in the teenage years. It can be difficult to identify the disorder in its early stages, especially due to the fact that teens on average can exhibit certain behaviors that mimic the beginnings of schizophrenic disorder. These can include:
- A drop in school performance
- Withdrawal from friends or family
- Irritability or depression
- Lack of motivation
- Difficulty sleeping
- Odd or strange behavior
Studies show that 30–40% of teens who exhibit these signs will develop schizophrenia or another psychotic disorder. It’s tricky as a parent to properly address signs like these, because they are often nothing more than growing pains. But if something is indeed wrong, catching it early can go a long way towards minimizing problems later in life. Do your research and speak with a professional if your son or daughter is exhibiting worrisome behavior.
What Causes Schizophrenia?
Even with decades of research, doctors have yet to find a universal cause of schizophrenia. As with other mental disorders, it’s typically caused by some combination of genetic and environmental factors. It develops in 10% of people who have an immediate relative with the disorder (e.g. brother, sister, parent), compared with the 1% of the general population who develop it on their own. Studies show a difference in the central nervous system and brain structure of schizophrenics compared with others, but the search for specific causes — and eventually, methods of prevention — continues.
What Are the Effects of Schizophrenia?
As schizophrenia worsens in a patient, the effects will similarly worsen and spread into more aspects of their life. Every case is unique and materializes in different ways, but the general side effects tend to follow certain trends.
Effects on the Brain
Schizophrenia is, first and foremost, a condition of the brain. It will trigger very noticeable changes in how a patient perceives the world, works through problems and expresses themselves.
These effects can include, but are not limited to:
- Poor executive functioning (i.e. the ability to understand information and use it to make decisions)
- Trouble paying attention or focusing on one thing
- Problems with “working memory” (i.e. the ability to use information you just learned)
- Disorganized thinking
- Seeing, hearing, smelling, hearing or tasting imaginary things — also known as “hallucinations”
- Believing outlandish things to be true, such as their own celebrity or that someone is spying on them
Delusions are a trademark symptom of schizophrenia, and can be among the most troubling things for loved ones to observe in a patient. Delusions can make patients extremely difficult to be around and to get through to, and are one reason why schizophrenics often wind up in mental hospitals. In 2001, 54% of individuals in the U.S. admitted to psychiatric hospitals suffered from schizophrenia.
Delusions of persecution lead patients to sincerely feel oppressed or mistreated by doctors, family members, friends or the general public. There will be a constant feeling that someone is “out to get them” or sabotage their life. This overwhelming paranoia and dread can make the patient scared and hostile, and prevent them from comfortably interacting with others.
Delusions of grandeur, on the other hand, lead patients to believe they are a really big deal. Someone experiencing these delusions may claim to be royalty or a celebrity of some kind — perhaps even a god — and expect to be treated as such. These delusions may be the brain’s drastic response to lifelong feelings of depression or severely damaged self-esteem.
The 2 other common schizophrenic delusions are:
- Delusions of Reference – when an arbitrary event is believed to have a personal and meaningful significance (e.g. television commercial spokesperson seems to be talking directly to the patient)
- Delusions of Control – when one’s thoughts or actions are believed to be controlled or manipulated by external or alien forces (e.g. fears of personal thoughts being broadcast to others, feelings of thoughts being inserted or planted in their minds, and thoughts being stolen or withdrawn)
Effects on the Body
The intense mental conditions brought about by schizophrenia can put a victim’s body through additional turmoil. Schizophrenics will often lose control of their movements, sometimes even becoming catatonic, wherein they can’t move their body at all. In other cases, their movements will become random and “glitchy,” as if they are a malfunctioning machine.
Due to hallucinations — where a patient might hear voices yelling at them or giving them orders — many patients wind up hurting themselves in some fashion. They may even lash out at others.
Patients may experience some physical aging. Between the extreme mental toll of the illness and the inconsistent or altogether loss of sleep, the wear and tear on the body might become apparent.
Although there are patients with mild cases who are able to adequately manage their symptoms, the side effects of schizophrenia can often be overwhelming. In these cases, obligations such as school, work, social events and family matters are suddenly insurmountable hurdles. Teens battling schizophrenia will have trouble maintaining a job, staying on course with schoolwork or maintaining personal relationships. Only 10–20% of schizophrenia patients are able to hold down decent employment. They can also have problems with the law, have unstable housing situations and can be in and out of hospitals over the course of their life.
Until the symptoms subside, schizophrenia can dictate a patient’s general abilities and ease of living. Suicidal thoughts are common in schizophrenics, as they can quickly feel powerless against their disease — 10% of schizophrenia patients die by suicide, particularly young males.
Patients whose symptoms are a combination of schizophrenia — such as delusions and hallucinations — and mood disorder, such as depression or mania, are diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder. Because this is a mix of mental health conditions, it creates a unique problem to solve in each case. On a whole, these cases are not as well understood as specific health conditions. More than 24 different definitions for this disorder were developed in the years since doctors deemed it a separate problem from schizophrenia.
This illness is usually caused by a combination of factors, including genetics, a changes in brain structure and highly stressful or traumatic events. Psychoactive drugs, such as LSD, are also linked with the development of schizoaffective disorder. To be diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, a patient must have the following symptoms:
- A period during which a major mood disorder occurs at the same time that schizophrenia symptoms are present
- Two or more weeks of hallucinations or delusions in the absence of a major mood episode
- Symptoms of a major mood episode being present for the majority of the duration of the illness
- Drug or medication abuse is not the sole cause of these symptoms
While males develop schizoaffective disorder at an earlier age, men and women experience the disorder at the same rate. Around 0.3% of the U.S. population has schizoaffective disorder, and these people are often initially misdiagnosed with bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. Schizoaffective disorder is considered more treatable than general schizophrenia, with combined medication and therapy managing the illness effectively.
Does Schizophrenia Cause Substance Abuse?
In lieu of self-harming or suicidal thoughts, teens or adults with schizophrenia may pick up a substance habit to cope. Among schizophrenics, alcohol use disorder (or alcoholism) is the most common co-occurring disorder that doesn’t involve some form of nicotine addiction. Nicotine and cigarettes are even more popular, with schizophrenics becoming addicted — physically and psychologically dependent — to nicotine at 3 times the rate of the general population.
One study revealed that 47% of patients diagnosed with schizophrenia met the criteria for a substance use disorder at some point in their lives — a rate much higher than for the general population — with problems ranging from marijuana to prescription painkillers to teen heroin addiction. These problems may begin before the onset of schizophrenia symptoms, but experts believe that substance problems do not cause schizophrenia. If a patient abuses substances — returning to them often and in higher amounts — it can aggravate their schizophrenia. These people are also less likely to stick to their recommended treatment plan.
How Can I Tell if My Teen Has Schizophrenia?
Experts divide the symptoms of schizophrenia into two categories: positive and negative symptoms.
Positive Symptoms of Schizophrenia
These are disturbances “added” to the person — something that wasn’t there before. These can include:
- Disordered thinking and speech (jumping from topic to topic without reason, making up words and sounds)
- Movement disorders (agitated body movements, repeating certain movements over and over)
Negative Symptoms of Schizophrenia
These are things “removed” from the person — abilities, feelings and thought processes. These can include:
- Extreme apathy
- Emotional unresponsiveness
- Lack of drive, initiative or planning
- Social withdrawal
- Reduced speech capabilities
- Limited movement
- Inability to feel joy
Historically in schizophrenic patients, positive symptoms peak for a time, but negative symptoms persist longer and are also harder to treat.
If you notice these signs adding up in your son or daughter, it’s important to address the issue. Bring them in for a doctor’s visit so that they can receive a proper assessment. If your teen is showing the early signs of schizophrenia, the situation will demand immediate care and possibly rehab.
Is Schizophrenia Treatable?
Schizophrenia presents a hefty challenge for doctors and families of patients. There’s no easy cure for the disorder, and when the symptoms are severe, patients can be practically inconsolable. If you are fortunate enough to catch the problem in your teen early, their schizophrenia can be easier to manage.
Medications are the most common avenue for initial treatment. Antipsychotic medications target the worst of schizophrenia symptoms, and can help reduce hallucinations and other breaks with reality. If and when these antipsychotics take effect, patients may be more open to formal therapies and psychosocial treatments — counseling sessions on how to deal with everyday challenges, such as socializing and taking care of oneself and how to healthily cope with their illness.
Though successful treatment is not guaranteed, statistics are promising. After a 10-year follow-up, 25% of schizophrenia patients are fully recovered, 25% are much improved and living independently and 25% are improved but require constant care.
Does My Child Need Treatment?
If you see signs of substance abuse in your child — whether or not they are accompanied by a mental illness like schizophrenia — you need to act now to prevent your child from further harm.
Even if you’re not certain that substance abuse is happening, your child is well worth a quick conversation with a substance abuse expert, such as those of us at TeenRehabCenter.org. We’re available — for free — to talk through anything you’ve noticed that may point to drug or alcohol use. If it turns out that addiction is present and your child’s doctor agrees, some form of rehab will probably be necessary.
Our compassionate professionals at TeenRehabCenter.org can help you separate your own fears from reality, and figure out how to help your child. There are no obligations associated with calling. Don’t delay — your child’s health is worth the call.
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