Schizophrenia: Meaning, Symptoms, Causes and Available Treatments

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Schizophrenia is a mental illness that affects how the brain works.  People with schizophrenia may experience some of the following symptoms:
. hallucinations
. a lack of interest in things
. feeling disconnected from your feelings
. hearing voices
. delusions
. feeling like you need to be protected.
. difficulty concentrating
. wanting to avoid people
A person with schizophrenia typically experiences changes in behaviour and perception, and disordered thinking that can distort their sense of reality. This is referred to as psychosis. Delusions, hearing voices and hallucinations are all types of psychosis.

What are the symptoms of schizophrenia?

The major symptoms of schizophrenia include:

Delusions - false beliefs of persecution, guilt or grandeur, or being under outside control. People with schizophrenia may describe plots against them or think they have special gifts and powers. Sometimes they withdraw from people or hide to avoid imagined persecution.

Hallucinations - most commonly involve hearing voices. Other less common experiences can include seeing, feeling, tasting or smelling things that to the person are very real, but that are not actually there.

Thought disorder - where speech may be difficult to follow with no logical connection. Thoughts and speech may be jumbled and disjointed.

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Other symptoms of schizophrenia include:

Lack of drive - where the ability to engage in everyday activities, such as washing and cooking, is lost. This lack of drive, motivation and initiative is part of the illness, and is not laziness.

Thinking difficulties - a person’s concentration, memory, and ability to plan and organise maybe affected. This makes it more difficult to reason, communicate,and complete daily tasks.

Blunted expression of emotions - where the ability to express emotion is greatly reduced. This is often accompanied by an inappropriate response to happy or sad occasions.

Social withdrawal - this may be caused by a number of factors including the fear that someone is going to harm them, or a fear of interacting with other people because of a loss of social skills.

Lack of insight - because some experiences, such as delusions and hallucinations, are so real, it is common for people with schizophrenia to be unaware that they are ill.This can be very distressing for family and carers. Lack of awareness can be a reason that people with schizophrenia refuse to accept treatment that could be helpful. The unwanted side-effects of some medications can also contribute to treatment refusal.

What causes schizophrenia?

It is generally agreed that schizophrenia is caused by a combination of factors rather than a single one.

Dopamine

Dopamine is one of the chemicals that carries messages between brain cells. There is evidence that too much dopamine may be involved in the development of schizophrenia, but it’s still not clear how, or whether everyone diagnosed with schizophrenia has too much dopamine.
Neuroleptic drugs (antipsychotics), which are sometimes used to treat schizophrenia, target the dopamine system.

Stressful life events.

Highly stressful or life-changing events may trigger schizophrenia. These include:

• social isolation
• being out of work
• living in poverty
• being homeless
• losing someone close to you
• being physically or verbally abused, or harassed.

Drug abuse

Some people may develop symptoms of schizophrenia as a result of using cannabis or other street drugs such as cocaine and amphetamines. If you already have schizophrenia, using street drugs can make the symptoms worse. Drinking alcohol and smoking may also limit how effectively medicines treat the symptoms of schizophrenia.

Genetic factors

Some families seem to be prone to schizophrenia, which suggests a genetic link. Rather than there being a specific gene for schizophrenia however, it is thought that certain genes might make some people more vulnerable to the condition.

Other causes

Research is happening all the time into what might cause schizophrenia. For example there is evidence that physical differences in, or injury to the brain may be linked to schizophrenia, and that some of this process might happen before someone is born. Research into other possible causes, including viruses, hormonal activity (particularly in women), diet, allergic reaction or infection is ongoing.

What treatments are available?

The most effective treatment for schizophrenia involves medication, psychological therapy and support with managing its impact on everyday life. 

Doctors usually prescribe antipsychotic drugs (also known as neuroleptic drugs or major tranquillisers) to control the ‘positive’ symptoms of schizophrenia.These Medications work by correcting the chemical imbalance in the brain associated with the illness. Newer, but well-tested, medications promote a more complete recovery and have fewer side effects.

Lifestyle changes, such as reducing harmful alcohol and other drug use and other triggers of episodes, can assist people to recover. Although there is no known cure for schizophrenia, regular contact with a doctor or psychiatrist and possibly a multidisciplinary team (that might comprise mental health nurses, social workers, occupational therapists and psychologists) can help people to manage their symptoms and live full and productive lives.

Peer support can also be a valuable source of support, useful information and hope. Sometimes, specific therapies directed towards symptoms, such as delusions, can be helpful. Physical health problems also need to be attended to.

Psychiatric disability rehabilitation services and support can help with problems related to work, finances, accommodation, social relationships and loneliness.

The family and friends of people with schizophrenia can often feel confused and distressed. Support and education, as well as better community understanding, are an important part of treatment

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