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What is schizophrenia?

Schizophrenia is a complex mental disorder that affects the way a person thinks, feels and acts.

Likely causes included genes and lifestyle factors; and treatment can involve medication, counselling and hospitalisation. For some people, it is a chronic, life-long condition; while for others it will only last a brief period.

Schizophrenia affects approximately 1 in 100 people, and typically begins in adolescence or early adulthood.

The mental disorder involves a breakdown in the relationship between thoughts, emotions and behaviours. A person with schizophrenia typically experiences a distorted perception of the world – they find it difficult to distinguish between what is real and what is not, and will often avoid family and friends, lack motivation and stop working.

About one quarter of people with schizophrenia will only have one or two episodes and then recover. About half will have ongoing symptoms but will be able to successfully manage their condition with medication, and enjoy a normal life. The remainder of people with the illness will require repeated hospitalisation and ongoing support.

A common misconception is that people with schizophrenia have split personalities. This is not the case.

Symptoms of schizophrenia

While there are a number of different signs and symptoms of schizophrenia, the way it manifests will vary from person to person.

Generally, a person with schizophrenia will experience persistent ‘positive’ symptoms of psychosis. These symptoms are not typically found in healthy people, and can be grouped into three main categories:

  • Confused thinking
  • Delusions
  • Hallucinations

They may also experience ‘negative’ symptoms – that is, they are lacking some of the feelings or behaviours that are generally found in normal people. These negative symptoms of schizophrenia are characterised by a loss of motivation and general withdrawal.

A person with schizophrenia will often also become depressed or anxious.

Causes of schizophrenia

The exact causes of schizophrenia are not known, however research shows that possible reasons for the abnormal brain development may include:

  • Genetics: studies show that the risk of developing schizophrenia increases significantly if both parents have the condition
  • Environment: a person is more likely to develop it if their mother had the flu while pregnant
  • Neurodevelopmental factors: some research shows that the changes going on in the brain that result in schizophrenia may start in utero
  • Drug misuse: use of drugs like cannabis may precipitate or worsen the symptoms of schizophrenia

Diagnosis and treatment of schizophrenia

There is no single test for schizophrenia. Rather, diagnosis is made by a psychiatrist, and it may take up to six months – during which time they will refer to complex criteria for diagnosing schizophrenia.

Once diagnosed, a person with schizophrenia will likely be prescribed antipsychotic medications. Many studies show that the earlier a person starts taking medication for schizophrenia, the less likely it is that the illness develops into a chronic and debilitating condition.

Antipsychotic medications do not cure schizophrenia. Rather, they suppress the symptoms so that the person can lead a normal life.

The importance of treatment for schizophrenia

Without treatment, schizophrenia is a potentially a severe disorder. People with the illness can experience employment difficulties, social isolation, poverty, repeated hospitalisation, imprisonment, insecure and transient accommodation, homelessness, poor physical health, drug abuse and an increased mortality. Suicide, accidents and disease are increased among people with schizophrenia; and the average person with schizophrenia dies 15 years younger than the general population.

Further information and sources


This article is of a general nature only. You should always seek medical advice if you think you may have the symptoms of schizophrenia.