Schizophrenia is a mental disorder that makes it hard to tell the difference between what is real and not real.
It also makes it hard to think clearly, have normal emotional responses, and act normally in social situations.
Schizophrenia is a complex illness. Mental health experts are not sure what causes it. Genes may play a role.
Schizophrenia occurs in just as many men as women. It usually begins in the teen or young adult years, but it may begin later in life. In women, it tends to begin later and is a milder condition.
Schizophrenia in children usually begins after age 5. Childhood schizophrenia is rare and can be hard to tell apart from other developmental problems, such as autism.
Symptoms usually develop slowly over months or years. The person may have many symptoms, or only a few.
People with schizophrenia may have trouble keeping friends and working. They may also have problems with anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts or behaviors.
Early symptoms may include:
Irritable or tense feeling
As the illness continues, the person may have problems with thinking, emotions, and behavior, including:
Hearing or seeing things that are not there (hallucinations)
Problems paying attention
Strongly held beliefs that are not real (delusions)
Talking in a way that does not make sense
Thoughts that "jump" between different topics ("loose associations")
Exams and Tests
There are no medical tests to diagnose schizophrenia. A psychiatrist should examine the person and make the diagnosis. The diagnosis is made based on an interview of the person and family members.
The psychiatrist will ask:
How long symptoms have lasted
How the person's ability to function has changed
What the person's developmental background was like
About the person's genetic and family history
How well medicines have worked
Whether the person has problems with substance abuse
About any other medical conditions the person has
Brain scans (such as CT or MRI) and blood tests may help rule out other conditions that have similar symptoms.
During an episode of schizophrenia, the person may need to stay in the hospital for safety reasons.
Antipsychotic drugs are the most effective treatment for schizophrenia. They change the balance of chemicals in the brain and can help control symptoms.
These drugs can cause side effects, but many side effects can be managed. Side effects should not prevent the person from getting treated for this serious condition.
Common side effects from antipsychotics may include:
Feelings of restlessness or jitteriness
Long-term use of antipsychotics may increase the risk of a movement disorder called tardive dyskinesia. This condition causes repeated movements that the person cannot control. Call the health care provider right away if you think you or your family member may have this condition due to the medicine.
When schizophrenia does not improve with antipsychotics, other medicines may be tried.
Schizophrenia is a life-long illness. Most people with this condition need to stay on antipsychotic medication for life.
SUPPORT PROGRAMS AND THERAPIES
Support therapy may be helpful for many people with schizophrenia. Behavioral techniques, such as social skills training, can help the person function better in social and work situations. Job training and relationship-building classes are also important.
Family members and caregivers are very important during treatment. Therapy can teach important skills, such as:
Coping with symptoms that continue, even while taking medicines
Following a healthy lifestyle, including getting enough sleep and staying away from recreational drugs
Taking medicines correctly and managing side effects
Watching for the return of symptoms, and knowing what to do when they return
Getting the right support services
Outlook is hard to predict. Most of the time, symptoms improve with medicines. But many people may have trouble functioning. They are at risk of repeated episodes, especially during the early stages of the illness.
People with schizophrenia may need housing, job training, and other community support programs. Those with the most severe forms of this disorder may not be able to live alone. They may need to live in group homes or other long-term, structured residences.
Symptoms are very likely to return when medicine is stopped.
Having schizophrenia increases the risk of:
Developing a problem with alcohol or drugs (substance abuse). Using alcohol or other drugs increases the chances that symptoms will return.
Physical illness. This is due to an inactive lifestyle and side effects of medicines.
When to Contact a Medical Professional
Call your health care provider if you (or another family member):
Hear voices telling you to hurt yourself or others
Have the urge to hurt yourself or others
Feel scared or overwhelmed
See things that are not really there
Feel that you cannot leave the house
Feel that you are not able to care for yourself
Schizophrenia cannot be prevented.
Symptoms may be prevented by taking medicine exactly as the doctor instructed. Symptoms are likely to return if medicine is stopped.
Changing or stopping medicines should only be done by the doctor who prescribed them.
American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders. 5th ed. Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing. 2013.
Freudenreich O, Brown HE, Holt DJ. Psychosis and schizophrenia. In: Stern TA, Fava M, Wilens TE, Rosenbaum JF, eds. Massachusetts General Hospital Comprehensive Clinical Psychiatry. 2nd ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Mosby; 2016:chap 28.
Timothy Rogge, MD, Medical Director, Family Medical Psychiatry Center, Kirkland, WA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.