Throughout recorded history, the disorder known as schizophrenia has been a source of bewilderment. Those suffering from the illness once were thought to be possessed by demons and were feared, tormented, exiled or locked up forever.
In spite of advances in the understanding of its causes, course and treatment, schizophrenia continues to confound both health professionals and the public. It is easier for the average person to cope with the idea of cancer than it is to understand the odd behavior, hallucinations or strange ideas of the person with schizophrenia.
As with many mental disorders, the causes of schizophrenia are poorly understood. Friends and family commonly are shocked, embarrassed, afraid or angry when they learn of the diagnosis. People often envision a person with schizophrenia as being violent, and the disorder is often confused with Multiple Personality Disorder. But these kinds of prejudices and misperceptions can be readily corrected.
Expectations become more realistic as schizophrenia is better understood as a disorder that requires ongoing, lifelong treatment. Demystification of the illness, along with recent insights from neuroscience and neuropsychology, gives new hope for finding more effective treatments for an illness that previously carried a grave prognosis, and a one-way ticket to being institutionalized.
Schizophrenia is characterized by a broad range of unusual behaviors that cause profound disruption in the lives of people suffering from the condition, as well as in the lives of the people around them. Schizophrenia strikes without regard to gender, race, social class or culture.
Positive symptoms are psychotic behaviors not seen in healthy people. People with positive symptoms often "lose touch" with reality. These symptoms can come and go. Sometimes they are severe and at other times hardly noticeable, depending on whether the individual is receiving treatment. They include the following:
Hallucinations - sees, hears, smells, or feels what no one else can see, hear, smell, or feel.
Delusions – false beliefs
Repeated body movements – “tics”
Thought Disorders – disorganized thinking, loss of thought, meaningless words
Negative symptoms are associated with disruptions to normal emotions and behaviors. These symptoms are harder to recognize as part of the disorder and can be mistaken for depression or other conditions. These symptoms include the following:
"Flat affect" (a person's face does not move or he or she talks in a dull or monotonous voice)
Lack of pleasure in everyday life
Lack of ability to begin and sustain planned activities
Speaking little, even when forced to interact.
People with negative symptoms need help with everyday tasks. They often neglect basic personal hygiene. This may make them seem lazy or unwilling to help themselves, but the problems are symptoms caused by the schizophrenia.
Cognitive symptoms are subtle. Like negative symptoms, cognitive symptoms may be difficult to recognize as part of the disorder. Often, they are detected only when other tests are performed. Cognitive symptoms include the following:
Poor "executive functioning" (the ability to understand information and use it to make decisions)
Trouble focusing or paying attention
Problems with "working memory" (the ability to use information immediately after learning it).
Cognitive symptoms often make it hard to lead a normal life and earn a living. They can cause great emotional distress.
The primary treatment for schizophrenia and similar thought disorders is medication. Successful treatment depends upon a life-long regimen of both drug and psychosocial, support therapies. While the medication helps control the psychosis associated with schizophrenia (e.g., the delusions and hallucinations), it cannot help the person find a job, learn to be effective in social relationships, increase the individual's coping skills, and help them learn to communicate