Health conditions

Schizophrenia

Schizophrenia is a severe mental disorder which affects about 1 per cent of the general population. It can affect the way you think, feel and act.

The condition can cause disruptions to the person’s work or education, and people may find it difficult to care for themselves, and take on responsibilities at some times. Families, friends and other carers play a very important role in helping to care for people with the disorder.

Some people have symptoms related to schizophrenia for many years, but many people only have the symptoms once in their lives, often at a time of stress. It is possible to lead a productive and meaningful life with schizophrenia.

The diagnosis of schizophrenia

There are several diagnoses that share many of the same symptoms of schizophrenia.  These include mood disorders such as bipolar disorder or major depression, as well as personality disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental illnesses.

Specialists now believe that schizophrenia might actually be different conditions that overlap.  If you have been diagnosed with schizophrenia, it is helpful to think of this diagnosis as a tool for treating the symptoms you are currently experiencing, rather than a definite label that you will have to live with forever.

People who are at increased risk of schizophrenia

Symptoms of schizophrenia usually start between 16 and 30 years of age. A combination of factors is associated with an increased risk of schizophrenia. This means that people who have a greater number of these risk factors are more vulnerable for developing this condition.

This includes:

  • Schizophrenia or other psychotic disorder in close family members.
  • The use of cannabis, or other street drugs including amphetamines and ‘crystal meth’.
  • The accumulation of stressful or life-changing events.
  • Social disadvantage, poverty, homelessness.

Signs and symptoms of schizophrenia

  • Hearing voices speaking, sounds or music, when there is no one there, and seeing, feeling or smelling things that other people do not. These are called hallucinations. These experiences can be as intense and real as sensory perceptions, and can be frightening. In some cases however, voices can become friends and advisors.
  • Having strong beliefs that most other people would not share. A person with symptoms of schizophrenia may believe there is a conspiracy to persecute them, or that people want to cause them harm for reasons that no one else would understand, or that someone else is controlling their body or thoughts. These are called delusions.
  • Difficulties thinking and concentrating. Sometimes, everyday thoughts can become jumbled and confused, making sentences unclear or hard to understand. This is sometimes called thought disorder.
  • Thoughts can seem to speed up or slow down. Sometimes, people feel that thoughts are being put into their heads and taken out, or that others can hear what they are thinking.
  • Physical changes include problems falling asleep at the right time, or staying asleep, loss of energy, poor concentration and being unmotivated. They are sometimes called negative symptoms, although they can also arise from depression, feelings of loss, or unwanted side effects of medication.
  • Strong emotions and feelings, like being upset, anxious, confused, depressed, or feeling overwhelmed.  Other symptoms are associated with a lack of motivation or pleasure in everyday life (called ‘negative symptoms’). 

These symptoms can appear suddenly or gradually over time.

Treatment of schizophrenia

There are different treatment options for schizophrenia. Before you start any treatment, make sure that you discuss possible treatment options with your clinician, and that your views and wishes are taken into account.  Treatment guidelines suggest that people with schizophrenia be offered combination of antipsychotic medications and psycho-social treatments.

Treatments many include antipsychotic medications, which are taken in pill or liquid form. Some antipsychotics are given as injections.  Medications can help with your symptoms, but can cause unpleasant side effects. Never stop taking your medications suddenly without asking for advice from your doctor.  You may need to try different types to find one that suits you best.

Other forms of help include ‘talking’ therapies, such as psychological support.  These allow time and space to talk with a professional about problems and difficulties. Talking therapies may include counselling provided by trained mental health professionals, or sessions with a psychologist. Psychologists can provide a range of therapies, including mindfulness, psychotherapy, social skills, and cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT). CBT helps people to manage their negative thoughts, anxiety and depression, and develop coping strategies to relieve stress and manage symptoms associated with schizophrenia.

Other types of treatment may include family intervention therapies to help families better understand the disorder, and to develop better communication and problem solving skills.

Psychosocial treatments help people with everyday challenges, such as transport, work, or relationships. Psychological treatments help people understand their symptoms and adjust to living with schizophrenia. 

People who receive multiple treatment types are less likely to have relapses. A well-organised system of help from friends, family and professionals also provides the most effective option for managing the illness.  

Living with schizophrenia

Everyday strategies are very helpful for coping with hallucinations. These include:

  • Connecting with people with similar experiences
  • Getting in touch with community-managed groups, which you can access without a referral or assessment
  • Keeping in touch with friends and/or family who can provide support
  • Finding a meaning and purpose in your life
  • Understanding that many people with schizophrenia live happy and successful lives

Practical advice for family and friends

  • Accept that the person is experiencing symptoms that are beyond his/her control. These experiences are like real perceptions and can be very puzzling and frightening.
  • Showing love and support will help the person to feel safe
  • Encourage the person to describe their experiences. What is it like? These may account for feelings and emotions.
  • Suggest that the person draw on what they are good at to overcome the distress associated with their symptoms
  • Spend time together, relax, do fun things
  • Encourage the person to meet other people who have schizophrenia
  • Read up, and get informed, on the symptoms of schizophrenia and how you might help
  • Encourage people to attend support groups (see community-managed groups)

Where to get help

  • See your GP. They will probably refer you to psychiatric services for an assessment, and so that you get the best possible treatment and care.
  • Ring Healthdirect Australia on 1800 022 222.
  • RuralLink for Rural and remote areas 1800 552 002.
  • Mental Health Emergency Response Line (external site)
    • Perth metro callers Ph: 1300 555 788
    • Peel callers ph: 1800 676 822

Acknowledgements
Clinical Research Centre

This publication is provided for education and information purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical care. Information about a therapy, service, product or treatment does not imply endorsement and is not intended to replace advice from your healthcare professional. Readers should note that over time currency and completeness of the information may change. All users should seek advice from a qualified healthcare professional for a diagnosis and answers to their medical questions.

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