More than 4 million American adults are at risk for developing schizophrenia. Approximately 150 in every 100,000 people actually do develop this illness. Although it is relatively rare, the chronic and often debilitating symptoms of this disease devastate victims and their families, making schizophrenia one of the most catastrophic of all mental illnesses.
Generally schizophrenia begins in adolescence or young adulthood. symptoms appear gradually and family and friends may not notice as the illness takes hold. Early symptoms include tenseness, an inability to concentrate, disturbed sleep pattern, and social withdrawal. As the illness progresses, the symptoms become more bizarre. The patient develops peculiar behavior, begins talking in nonsense, and has unusual perceptions.
Schizophrenia worsens and improves in cycles known as relapse and remission. At times, people suffering from schizophrenia appear relatively normal. However, during the acute or psychotic phase, schizophrenics cannot think straight and may lose all sense of who they and others are, they may suffer from any or all of the following:
- Delusions – thoughts that are fragmented, bizarre, and have no basis in reality, e.g., patients might, think they are an historical figure, a famous actor, or well known politician.
- Hallucinations – hearing voices that comment on the patient's behavior, insult the patient, or give commands.
Visual hallucinations, seeing nonexistent things and tactile hallucinations, such as a burning or itching sensation, also can occur.
Thought disorders – Associations among thoughts are very loose. Patients may shift topic without realizing that they are not making logical sense. They may substitute sounds or rhymes for words, or make up their own words.
There have been many theories about the causes of schizophrenia, but to date, research has been unable to pinpoint the origins. Many scientists suspect that people inherit a susceptibility to the illness, which can be triggered by environmental events such as a viral infection that changes the body's chemistry, or some other highly stressful situation.
Other theories hold that schizophrenics are either extraordinarily sensitive to or produce too much – dopamine, a biochemical found in the brain.
Psychiatrists have found a number of antipsychotic medications – such as Thorazine or Clorazil – that help to bring biochemical imbalances closer to normal levels. These medications can reduce the hallucinations and delusions significantly, and help patients with schizophrenia to maintain coherent thoughts.
Like all medications, antipsychotic drugs should be taken only under the careful supervision of a physician. And, as with any other medication, these drugs do have side effects. The most common side effects of antipsychotics are restlessness, dry mouth, constipation, and lightheadedness. Generally, these side effects are minor and diminish over time. When treatment is successful, many patients consider these side effects to be negligible when compared to the anguish and suffering of an untreated mental illness.
By ending or reducing the hallucinations, delusions, and thought disorders, medications allow a patient to gain benefits from psychotherapy and to function in society. Provided on an individual, group, or family basis, psychotherapy can offer understanding, reassurance, careful insights, and suggestions for handling the emotional aspects of the disorder.
And psychotherapeutic treatment is tailored to the individual patient's needs. Such treatments offer much hope to people suffering from schizophrenia, their families, and friends. With therapy, patients can control their symptoms. And depending upon the type of work and severity of their illness, they can work live at home, and continue the activities that they enjoyed before the illness took hold.