What is schizophrenia?
Schizophrenia is a brain disorder that distorts a person's sense of reality. It impedes a person's ability to regulate his or her emotions and often makes socializing, decision making and logical thinking very difficult. As set forth by the US National Library of Medicine, there are multiple kinds of schizophrenia: paranoid, disorganized, catatonic, undifferentiated, and residual (more info). Formerly referred to as dementia praecox (literally premature dementia), the term "schizophrenia" was coined in 1910 by the Swiss psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler and comes from the Greek roots: skhizein meaning "split" and phren meaning "heart, mind." According to the National Institute of Mental Health, schizophrenia affects approximately one percent of all Americans.
What are the causes of schizophrenia?
Though scientists have not identified a singular cause of schizophrenia, it is currently believed that a combination of genetic, environmental and prenatal factors increase a person's likelihood of having the disorder. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), "Recent research has identified certain genes that appear to increase risk for schizophrenia. Like cancer and diabetes, the genes only increase the chances of becoming ill; they alone do not cause the illness."
What are the symptoms?
Symptoms of schizophrenia usually show themselves in a person's 20s or 30s and are generally separated into three categories: positive, negative and cognitive. Positive symptoms refer to symptoms present in schizophrenic patients that are not present in "normal" healthy people. These include any number of hallucinations or delusions, the most common being auditory voices that are heard. Negative symptoms refer to a lack of movement or expression in a person, deadened speech or the absence of emotion. Cognitive symptoms are symptoms relating to the person's inability to think clearly, organize, and remember. According to NAMI, "no one symptom positively identifies schizophrenia. All of the symptoms of this illness can also be found in other mental illnesses."
Though the term's etymology may seem to suggest that people affected by schizophrenia have "split" personalities, it is a misconception. According to NAMI, multiple personalities are a symptom of dissociative identity disorder, generally caused by physical or sexual abuse, not schizophrenia. Similarly, it is also not true that people with schizophrenia are inherently violent. According to the Department of Psychology at Macalester College, "Unless patients forget to take their medications, are using drugs excessively or have a history of violence, there is no difference between the 'normal' population and the population of people with schizophrenia. This portrayal has mainly been spread through the media and if anything, people suffering from this disease are the opposite. They tend to be passive, anxious and fearful of others/the environment."
How can schizophrenia be treated?
There is no one method for treating schizophrenia as each person will need treatment tailored to their symptoms. But through counseling, support groups, and the use of anti-psychotic medications (referred to as either "conventional" for the older drugs made available in the 1950s or "atypical" for newer drugs introduced in the 1990s), people with schizophrenia can be helped.
To hear first-hand accounts from seven men and women affected by schizophrenia, visit the New York Times feature entitled: "Patient Voices: Schizophrenia."
This article was originally published in February 2011, and has been updated for the
August 2011 paperback release.
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