Schizophrenia

Schizophrenia is a group of severe brain disorders in which people interpret reality abnormally. Schizophrenia may result in some combination of hallucinations, delusions and confused thinking and behavior and would require lifelong treatment. People with schizophrenia have difficulty holding a job or caring for themselves; they tend to rely on others for help which can be challenging for families.

People with the disorder may hear voices other people don't hear. They may believe other people are reading their minds, controlling their thoughts or plotting to harm them. This can terrify people with the illness and make them withdrawn or extremely agitated. People with schizophrenia may sit for hours without moving or talking. When they do talk, they may not make sense.

Who is Affected by Schizophrenia?

About 1 percent of Americans have schizophrenia. This illness affects both rich and poor, men and women, and all races. Symptoms tend to first appear in men during their late teens and in women during their early adult years. It is uncommon for children to be diagnosed with schizophrenia. Eliminating as much stress as possible can help reduce symptoms.

What Causes Schizophrenia?

Scientists are not 100 percent sure what causes schizophrenia. They think that an imbalance in the complex chemical reactions of the brain plays a role in schizophrenia. The illness may also be caused by the presence of certain genes in combination with environmental factors, such as exposure to viruses or malnutrition before birth.

  • Scientists have long known that schizophrenia runs in families.
  • The illness occurs in 10 percent of people who have a first-degree relative with the disorder, such as a parent, brother or sister.
  • People who have second-degree relatives (aunts, uncles, grandparents, or cousins) with the disease also develop schizophrenia more often than the general population.
  • The identical twin of a person with schizophrenia has a 40 to 65 percent chance of developing the disorder.

What are the Symptoms of Schizophrenia?

Schizophrenia symptoms also can be attributed to other mental illnesses, and no one symptom can pinpoint a diagnosis of schizophrenia. This can make the illness difficult to diagnose at first. Common symptoms include a combination of many of the symptoms listed below.

  • Delusions: Beliefs that are not based in reality are the most common of schizophrenic symptoms.
  • Hallucinations: Seeing or hearing things that don't exist. Hearing voices is the most common hallucination among people with schizophrenia.
  • Difficulty speaking and organizing thoughts
  • Disorganized behavior
  • Loss of interest in everyday activities
  • Appearing to lack emotion 
  • Reduced ability to plan or carry out activities
  • Neglect of personal hygiene
  • Social withdrawal
  • Loss of motivation
  • Problems with making sense of information
  • Difficulty paying attention
  • Memory problems

Schizophrenia is not the same thing as multiple personality disorder. The word “schizophrenia” does mean “split mind,” but it refers to a disruption of the usual balance of emotions and thinking.

Is Schizophrenia Treatable?

Treatment helps relieve many symptoms of schizophrenia, but most people who have the disorder cope with symptoms throughout their lives. However, many people with schizophrenia can lead rewarding and meaningful lives in their communities.

Researchers are developing more effective medications and using new research tools to understand the causes of schizophrenia. In the years to come, this work may help prevent and better treat the illness.

Treatment at Sentara includes:

  • Effective, empathetic care: Our locations provide a safe and comfortable environment suited for patients facing this illness.
  • An emphasis on recovery: Our goal is to help patients participate in their recovery and realize that although they may not have full control over their symptoms, they do have control over their lives.
  • Individualized medication plans: Antipsychotic medications are commonly prescribed to control the symptoms of schizophrenia. A person's willingness to cooperate with treatment may affect medication choices. For example, someone who is uncooperative may need to be given injections instead of taking a pill.
  • A team of experts: At Sentara, our team approach is an important part of treatment. Patients and their families meet with our experts including psychiatrists, therapists, nurses and medical professionals, to determine the best care options.

Families play an important role in the life and treatment of a person with schizophrenia. It is essential that families try to provide a supportive environment. Studies prove that family environments characterized by negative criticism, over-involvement and hostility are associated with increased relapse rates. Improved knowledge of the disease can change negative family reaction and build a more helpful environment.

What if Someone I Know Has Symptoms of Schizophrenia?

People with schizophrenia often lack awareness that their difficulties stem from a mental illness that requires medical attention. If you think someone you know may have symptoms of schizophrenia, talk to him or her about your concerns. Offer encouragement and support, and help them find a qualified doctor or mental health provider.

  • If they are having trouble caring for themselves: In some cases, emergency hospitalization may be needed. Laws on involuntary commitment for mental health treatment vary by state. There may be resources and support in your community that can help you. Contact community mental health agencies or police departments in your area for details.
  • If they are suicidal: Suicidal thoughts and behavior are common among people with schizophrenia. If you suspect or know that someone you care about is considering suicide, seek immediate help. Contact a doctor, mental health provider or other health care professional. 
  • If you would like them to be evaluated by a psychiatrist: Accompany them to a nearby emergency room. If there is a Sentara hospital near you, they will be evaluated by Sentara’s psychiatric emergency team and possibly admitted for inpatient care at one of our locations.

If you think you or someone you love may be struggling with anxiety, please contact us so the Sentara psychiatric team can recommend the best next steps for you or your family.