Schizophrenia is a serious mental illness that affects how a person thinks, feels, and behaves. People with schizophrenia may seem like they have lost touch with reality, which causes significant distress for the individual, their family members, and friends. If left untreated, the symptoms of schizophrenia can be persistent and disabling. However, effective treatments are available. When delivered in a timely, coordinated, and sustained manner, treatment can help affected individuals to engage in school or work, achieve independence, and enjoy personal relationships.
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Schizophrenia is typically diagnosed in the late teen years to the early thirties and tends to emerge earlier in males (late adolescence – early twenties) than females (early twenties – early thirties). A diagnosis of schizophrenia often follows the first episode of psychosis, when individuals first display symptoms of schizophrenia. Gradual changes in thinking, mood, and social functioning often begin before the first episode of psychosis, usually starting in mid-adolescence. Schizophrenia can occur in younger children, but it is rare for it to occur before late adolescence.
The symptoms of schizophrenia generally fall into the following three categories:
Psychotic symptoms include altered perceptions (e.g., changes in vision, hearing, smell, touch, and taste), abnormal thinking, and odd behaviors. People with psychotic symptoms may lose a shared sense of reality and experience themselves and the world in a distorted way. Specifically, individuals typically experience:
- Hallucinations, such as hearing voices or seeing things that aren’t there
- Delusions, which are firmly held beliefs not supported by objective facts (e.g., paranoia - irrational fears that others are “out to get you” or believing that the television, radio, or internet are broadcasting special messages that require some response)
- Thought disorder, which includes unusual thinking or disorganized speech
Negative symptoms include loss of motivation, disinterest or lack of enjoyment in daily activities, social withdrawal, difficulty showing emotions, and difficulty functioning normally. Specifically, individuals typically have:
- Reduced motivation and difficulty planning, beginning, and sustaining activities
- Diminished feelings of pleasure in everyday life
- “Flat affect,” or reduced expression of emotions via facial expression or voice tone
- Reduced speaking
Cognitive symptoms include problems in attention, concentration, and memory. For some individuals, the cognitive symptoms of schizophrenia are subtle, but for others, they are more prominent and interfere with activities like following conversations, learning new things, or remembering appointments. Specifically, individuals typically experience:
- Difficulty processing information to make decisions
- Problems using information immediately after learning it
- Trouble focusing or paying attention