Schizophrenia is a chronic, severe, and disabling brain disease. Approximately one percent of the population develops schizophrenia during their lifetime – more than two million Americans suffer from the illness in any given year. Although schizophrenia affects men and women with equal frequency, the disorder often appears earlier in men, usually in the late teens or early twenties; women are generally affected in the twenties to early thirties. People with schizophrenia often suffer terrifying symptoms such as hearing internal voices not heard by others, or believing that other people are reading their minds, controlling their thoughts, or plotting to harm them. These symptoms may leave them fearful and withdrawn. Their speech and behaviour can be disorganised and strange to the extent that they may be incomprehensible or frightening to others.
How is Schizophrenia Diagnosed?
There is currently no physical or lab test that can conclusively diagnose schizophrenia – a psychiatrist usually makes the diagnosis based on clinical symptoms. Physical testing can rule out many other conditions (seizure disorders, metabolic disorders, thyroid dysfunction, brain tumour, the effects of street drug use, and so on) that sometimes have similar symptoms.
What causes Schizophrenia?
Although the exact cause of schizophrenia remains unknown, experts agree that schizophrenia develops as a result of interplay between biological predisposition (for example, inheriting certain genes) and environmental factors. These lines of research are beginning to converge: brain development disruption is likely the result of genetic and/or environmental stressors early in development (during pregnancy or early childhood), leading to subtle alterations in the brain. Environmental factors later in development can either damage the brain further and further increase the risk of schizophrenia, or lessen the expression of genetic or neurodevelopment defects, thus decreasing the risk of schizophrenia.
Treatment for schizophrenia
The American Psychiatric Association publication ‘Guidelines for the Treatment of Patients with Schizophrenia’ states: “Antipsychotic medications are indicated for nearly all acute psychotic episodes in patients with schizophrenia.”
There is also a significant overlap in terms of the medications for schizophrenia and bipolar disorder (Manic Depression).
There are two main classifications of medications (from a layman’s perspective); the traditional antipsychotic medications (Haldol, etc.), and the newer, ‘atypical’ antipsychotic medications that have come out in the past decade (Clozapine, Geodon, Seroquel, Risperdal, Zyprexa, Abilify, etc.). It is recommended that sufferers or their carers speak to online support groups to get in touch with others, and to hear about their personal successes and problems with the different medications. It is also a good idea to read as much as possible regarding the medications available, and talk with a psychiatrist, to identify the medications that may be appropriate. It should be kept in mind that whilst both the older and newer medications can greatly help a person with schizophrenia, they all have significant side effects that vary according to the individual. No medication available, unfortunately, constitutes an actual cure for schizophrenia.