What is schizophrenia?

Schizophrenia is a severe, chronic, disabling mental disorder known to mankind throughout its history. About 1% of Americans suffer from schizophrenia.1

People with schizophrenia hear voices that other people do not hear; they are certain that someone is reading and controlling their thoughts or is plotting a plot to harm them. These experiences inspire horror in them, giving rise to feelings of fear, severe anxiety or isolation. People with schizophrenia say nonsense, they can sit still and silent for hours, or they seem absolutely normal until they start talking about what they really think. Since many people with schizophrenia find it difficult to work or take care of themselves, the disease is a heavy burden on their families and society.

The methods of treatment available in the arsenal of today’s medicine can weaken many of the symptoms of the disease, but in most cases, schizophrenic patients are forced to live with some residual symptoms of the disease for life. And yet, our time is a time of hope for schizophrenic patients and their families. Today many patients lead a worthy and meaningful life. Scientists are developing more effective drugs and using new tools and methods of research, are looking for the causes of schizophrenia and ways to prevent and treat the disease.

This brochure contains information on the symptoms of schizophrenia, when they appear, about the course of the disease, the current methods of treatment, about the support of patients and their loved ones, and about new areas of research.

Symptoms of schizophrenia

Symptoms of schizophrenia are divided into three categories:

  • Positive symptoms. These include abnormal thoughts and judgments, including hallucinations, delusions, thinking disorders, and motor disorders.
  • Negative symptoms that are expressed in the loss or decline of the ability to plan, express themselves, express emotions or enjoy everyday life. These symptoms are more difficult to recognize as manifestations of schizophrenia, they can be mistaken for being lazy or depressed.
  • Cognitive symptoms (or cognitive impairments) are problems with concentration and attention, certain types of memory and controlling functions responsible for our ability to plan and organize. Cognitive impairment is also difficult to recognize as a symptom of the disease, but it has the greatest impact on the ability to lead a normal lifestyle.

Positive symptoms

Positive symptoms are easily recognizable behaviors that are not common to healthy people and are associated, usually with a loss of connection with reality. These include hallucinations, delusions, mental disorders and movement disorders. Positive symptoms may appear and disappear. Sometimes they are manifested in severe form, and sometimes hardly noticeable – it all depends on whether the person is treated or not.

Hallucinations. Hallucinations are a phenomenon when a person sees, hears, smells or feels something that no one but him can see, hear, smell or feel. “Voices” is the most common form of hallucinations in schizophrenia. Many patients hear voices that comment on their behavior, order them to do something, warn about imminent danger, or talk with each other (usually about the patient). Sufferers of schizophrenia can hear such voices for a long time before relatives or friends notice something is amiss. Other kinds of hallucinations include visions of non-existent people or objects; smell of odors, which no one else feels (although this may also be a symptom of some brain tumors); and imaginary tactile sensations (for example, touching invisible fingers to the patient’s body when no one is around).

Rave. Delusions are false representations of a person who do not have roots in his cultural experience and remain unshakable, even when other people give evidence that these representations are incorrect and illogical. In patients with schizophrenia, absolutely abnormal delusions can be observed, for example, they are sure that neighbors control their behavior with the help of magnetic waves, people on television broadcast special messages to them, or that radio stations in their broadcasts voice their thoughts to other people. They can also develop delirium grandeur and the belief that they are famous historical figures. People with paranoid schizophrenia may think that others intentionally deceive them, mock them, try to poison them, spy on them or plot against them and their close people. Such representations are called delusions of persecution.

Disorder of thinking. In patients with schizophrenia, abnormal forms of the mental process are often observed. One of the most significant is disorganized thinking, in which it is difficult for a person to systematize his thoughts or logically connect them. The speech may be incoherent or difficult to understand. Another form is a “delay in thinking,” in which a person stops suddenly in the middle of a thought. If you ask why he stopped, then a person can answer that he seemed to have taken the thought out of his head. Finally, a person can create incomprehensible words or “neologisms”.

Movement disorders. Patients with schizophrenia can experience awkward, uncoordinated and involuntary movements, grimaces, or strange mannerisms. They can repeat certain movements again and again or fall into a catatonic state – a state of immobility and immunity. Catatonic syndrome was more common when there was no treatment for schizophrenia; now, fortunately, this symptom is rare.2

Negative symptoms

The term “negative symptoms” means a decrease in the normal emotional potential and level of behavior:

  • flattened affect (fixed expression, monotonous voice),
  • inability to enjoy in everyday life,
  • weakened ability to plan and carry out the assigned tasks, and
  • sluggish and poor speech, even if you need to communicate.

Patients with schizophrenia often disregard the rules of basic hygiene and in everyday life need outside help. Since it is not obvious that negative symptoms are manifestations of mental illness, schizophrenia patients are often considered simply lazy and unwilling to improve their lives by people.

Cognitive symptoms

Cognitive symptoms are invisible and are often detected only as a result of neuropsychological tests. Cognitive symptoms include:

  • the weakness of “managing functions” (the ability to absorb and process information and make decisions based on this information),
  • inability to focus attention, and
  • problems with “working memory” (the ability to remember recently received information and immediately apply it)

Cognitive impairment often prevents a patient from living normally and supporting himself. They can cause severe emotional distress.

When is schizophrenia manifested and who is sick?

Psychotic symptoms (such as hallucinations and delusions) usually occur in men during late adolescence and up to 25 years, and in women aged 25-35 years. They occasionally occur after 45 years and very rarely until puberty, although there are described cases of schizophrenia in children 5 years of age. The first signs in adolescents can be: a change of friends, a decrease in academic performance, problems with sleep, irritability. Since the same features of behavior are common to many mentally normal adolescents, it is difficult to diagnose at this stage. In young people with schizophrenia, this period is called “prodromal.”

As research has shown, schizophrenia is equally susceptible to both men and women, and the incidence rate is the same among all ethnic groups worldwide.3

Are patients schizophrenic aggressive?

Patients with schizophrenia are not particularly prone to violence and often prefer to be left alone. According to the research, if a person is not criminally responsible for violence before the illness and does not use psychoactive substances (drugs, alcohol, etc.), he / she is unlikely to commit a crime even after getting sick. Most violent crimes are committed not by patients with schizophrenia, and most patients with schizophrenia do not commit violent crimes. The use of psychoactive substances always increases the aggressiveness of behavior, regardless of the presence of schizophrenia (see the inset on page 4). If someone who is paranoid schizophrenic is aggressive, then most often it is directed at family members and manifests in a home environment.

Substance Abuse

Symptoms similar to those of schizophrenia may appear in drug users, so schizophrenic patients may be mistaken for people who are under the influence of drugs. While researchers do not believe that substance abuse is the cause of schizophrenia, the evidence suggests that patients with schizophrenia abuse alcohol and / or drugs more often than non-schizophrenics.

The use of psychoactive substances in schizophrenia can reduce the effectiveness of treatment. Stimulants (such as amphetamines or cocaine), phenylcyclidine and marijuana can worsen the symptoms of schizophrenia. In addition, people who use psychoactive substances most likely will not adhere to the treatment plan.

Schizophrenia and nicotine

The most common form of substance abuse among patients with schizophrenia is an addiction to nicotine. Nicotine dependence among them is three times higher than among the general population (the ratio of 75% -90% to 25% -30% per cent).

As a result of research, a complex relationship between smoking and schizophrenia has been revealed. Patients with schizophrenia smoking attracts and lures, and researchers are studying whether there are biological prerequisites for this need. In addition to the well-known fact that smoking harms health, a number of studies have found that smoking weakens the effect of antipsychotics. If a schizophrenic patient smokes, he may need a higher dose of medication.

Patients with schizophrenia are particularly difficult to quit smoking, as stopping the consumption of nicotine can cause a temporary worsening of the psychotic symptoms. Better tolerated smoking cessation methods, including nicotine-substituting drugs. If a patient with schizophrenia decides to start or stop smoking, the attending physician should carefully monitor the effects of antipsychotics.

Schizophrenia and suicide

Patients with schizophrenia commit suicide attempts much more often than representatives of the rest of the population. In 104, 5 percent of cases (especially among young men) these attempts reach the goal. It is difficult to predict who from schizophrenic patients is prone to suicide, so if someone talks about suicide or attempts, you should immediately contact a specialist for help.

The causes of schizophrenia

It is believed that, like many other diseases, schizophrenia is the result of a combination of environmental and genetic factors. To search for the causes of schizophrenia, the whole arsenal of modern science is involved.

Is schizophrenia inherited?

Scientists have long known that schizophrenia is hereditary. This disease affects 1% of the world’s population, but it occurs in 10% of people whose closest relatives (one parent, brother or sister) suffer from schizophrenia. People whose relatives of the second degree of kinship (aunts, uncles, grandparents or cousins) are schizophrenic are also more likely to suffer from this disease than the rest of the population. In a pair of odnoyaytsovyh twins, where one is sick with schizophrenia, the risk of falling ill with the second – the highest: 40% – 65% .7

Our genes are located on 23 pairs of chromosomes, which are in the nucleus of each human cell. We inherit two copies of each gene – one from each of the parents. It is assumed that some genes are associated with an increased risk of developing schizophrenia, but scientists believe that a single gene has very little impact and in itself can not be the cause of the disease. To date, it is still impossible to predict who will fall ill, based on genetic material.

In the presence of genetic prerequisites for schizophrenia, it is unlikely that genes themselves are a sufficient basis for the development of the disease. There is a point of view that schizophrenia is the result of a certain interaction of genes and objective factors of the external world. For example, risk factors include the effect on the fetus of viral diseases and the lack of vitamins in the mother during pregnancy, complications during childbirth, and psychosocial factors such as stressful conditions.

Patients with schizophrenia are impaired chemical processes of the brain?

It is likely that an imbalance in the complex of interrelated chemical brain reactions involving dopamine and glutamate neurotransmitters (and possibly others) plays a role in the development of schizophrenia. Neurotransmitters are substances that allow brain cells to communicate with each other. Basic knowledge of the chemical processes of the brain and their relationship with schizophrenia are rapidly expanding and are a promising direction of scientific research.

Is the brain of a schizophrenic patient different?

The brain of a schizophrenic patient is slightly different from the brain of a healthy person, but these differences are small. Sometimes, in patients with schizophrenia, fluid-filled cavities of the central part of the brain (the so-called ventricles) are larger; the amount of gray matter is generally smaller; and in some areas of the brain, metabolism is slowed or vice versa accelerated.3 Posthumous studies under the microscope of brain tissues of schizophrenic patients also show small changes in the distribution and characteristics of brain cells. It turns out that many of these changes are prenatal, since they are not surrounded by glial cells, necessarily present if the brain damage occurred after birth.

According to one of the theories, complications during the formation of the fetal brain cause a disruption of the connection, which does not appear until pubertal age. During adolescence, the human brain undergoes significant changes that can trigger the development of psychotic symptoms.

To answer the questions posed here and many other questions about schizophrenia, further research is required. Scientists of the United States and around the world are studying schizophrenia and are trying to develop new methods for its prevention and treatment.

Treatment of schizophrenia

Since the causes of schizophrenia are still unknown, existing methods of treatment are aimed at combating the symptoms of the disease.


Antipsychotic drugs appeared in the mid-1950s. They effectively reduce the positive symptoms of schizophrenia. And although these drugs significantly improve the lives of many patients, they do not cure schizophrenia.

Everyone reacts differently to antipsychotic medications. Sometimes, in order to choose the right medicine, you have to try several different drugs. The joint efforts of the patient and the attending physician are required in order to select the medicines that control the symptoms best and with the least side effects.

The drugs of an earlier generation include chlorpromazine (Thorazine ©), haloperidol (Haldol ©), perphenazine (Etrafon ©, Trilafon ©), and fluphenazine (Prolixin ©). These drugs can cause extrapyramidal side effects, such as muscle numbness, persistent muscle spasms, tremors, and excitement.

In the 1990s, new drugs were created, the so-called atypical antipsychotics, which practically do not give these side effects. The first such drug was clozapine (Clozaril ©). It effectively affects psychotic symptoms even in those patients who do not respond to other drugs, but it can cause a serious complication – agranulocytosis – a reduction in the number of white blood cells (leukocytes) that protect the body from infections. Therefore, patients taking clozapine should check the level of leukocytes in the blood every week or every two weeks. The inconveniences caused by the need for frequent tests, and the high cost of the blood test and the drug itself, are an obstacle for many in the treatment of clozapine. Nevertheless, this medicine is the best choice for those whose symptoms do not respond to other antipsychotics, both the first generation and the new ones.

Some of the drugs developed after clozapine, such as risperidone (Risperdal ©), olanzapine (Zyprexa ©), quetiapine (Seroquel ©), sertindole (Serdolect ©) and ziprasidone (Geodon ©) are effective and rarely provoke extrapyramidal phenomena or agranulocytosis. However, they can cause weight gain and metabolic changes, which increases the risk of increased cholesterol and diabetes.

Aripiprazole (Abilify) is another atypical antipsychotic drug used to treat the symptoms of schizophrenia and manic or mixed (manic and depressive) episodes of type I bipolar affective disorder.

Patients respond differently to antipsychotic drugs, although phenomena such as excitement and hallucinations usually normalize in a few days, and delusions – for several weeks. In many patients, there is a significant improvement in both types of symptoms at the sixth week of taking the drug. Nobody can say in advance exactly how the medicine will affect a particular person, and sometimes you need to try several drugs until the right one is selected.

At first, after starting taking atypical antipsychotics, patients may experience drowsiness, dizziness when the body position changes, blurred vision, rapid heartbeat, problems with the menstrual cycle, sensitivity to sunlight or skin rash. Many of these symptoms disappear within a few days after the start of treatment, but patients taking atypical antipsychotics should not drive vehicles until they get used to the new drug.

If a patient with schizophrenia develops depression, then to the treatment scheme, you may need to add an antidepressant.

In large clinical trials funded by the National Institute for Mental Health (NIMH) and known as CATIE (Clinical Studies on the Effectiveness of Antipsychotic Treatment), the efficacy and side effects of five (both new and old antipsychotics) used in the treatment of schizophrenic patients . For more information about CATIE, visit: www.nimh.nih.gov/healthinformation/catie.cfm

Duration of treatment. Like diabetes or high blood pressure, schizophrenia is a chronic disease that needs constant treatment. To date, schizophrenia is incurable, but, thanks to treatment, the frequency of psychotic episodes can be significantly reduced. Although everyone responds differently to treatment, most patients with schizophrenia should take medication throughout life, as well as use other means, for example, supporting or rehabilitation therapy.

Relapses often occur when patients feeling better, stop taking antipsychotics or take them irregularly, because they forget or do not consider it important. It is very important for patients with schizophrenia to take medicines systematically and for a period of time prescribed by the doctor. If they follow these rules, they will attenuate the psychotic symptoms.

You can not stop taking antipsychotics without consulting a doctor and always gradually. To cancel a medicine it is necessary under observation of the doctor, gradually reducing a dose, instead of sharply stopping reception.

There are many reasons why patients with schizophrenia do not adhere to the prescribed treatment. If they do not believe that they are sick, they do not believe that they need any kind of treatment. If their thinking is too disorganized, they may forget to take medication every day. If they do not like the side effects of the drug, they may stop taking it, not wanting to try another. Substance abuse can also affect the effectiveness of treatment. The attending physicians should ask the patients about the regularity of taking their medications and be sympathetic to the patient’s request to change the dosage or to try other medications to get rid of unwanted side effects.

There are many ways to help patients with schizophrenia take regular medications. There are long-acting drugs in the form of injections, which, unlike tablets, do not need to be taken on a daily basis. Medical calendars and boxes for tablets, with the days of the week indicated on them, can help patients not to forget about taking medications, and caring for them – to control whether the patient has taken the pill. To help patients comply with the medication regimen, electronic clock timers can be programmed for the time of taking the tablets or timed to everyday activities (such as eating, for example).

Interaction of drugs. The combination of antipsychotics with certain other drugs can cause unpleasant or dangerous side effects. For this reason, the doctor who prescribes antipsychotics must report all medications (prescription and over-the-counter), vitamins, minerals and herbal supplements the patient takes. It should also discuss the use of alcohol or other drugs.

Psychosocial therapy

Numerous studies show that psychosocial therapy can help patients with stabilized antipsychotic drugs to resolve a number of social aspects of schizophrenia, such as communication difficulties, motivation, self-service, work, tying and maintaining relationships with others. Studying and using the mechanisms of psychological adaptation to solve these problems allows schizophrenic patients to attend school, work and communicate. Patients who regularly undergo psychosocial therapy better adhere to the medication regimen, they have fewer relapses and less likely to go to hospital. A good relationship with a psychologist or social worker serves the patient as a reliable source of information, empathy, support and hope – all those that play a crucial role in fighting the disease. Informing patients about the causes of the disease, the common symptoms or problems they may face, and the importance of continuing the use of medications, the therapist can help them better understand the disease and learn how to live with schizophrenia.

How to take the disease under control. Patients with schizophrenia can play an active role in the fight against their disease. Having become acquainted with the basic information about schizophrenia and the principles of its treatment, they can make a measured decision regarding medical supervision. Having learned to recognize the early symptoms of relapses and how to respond to them, they can learn to prevent them. You can train patients and effective skills on how to cope with persistent symptoms.

Complex treatment with concomitant substance abuse.

Abuse of psychoactive substances is the most common concomitant phenomenon in patients with schizophrenia, but the usual programs for the treatment of drug dependence, as a rule, do not take into account the specific needs of this part of the population. Combining programs to treat schizophrenia and drug addiction gives the best results.

Rehabilitation. By focusing on social and vocational training, rehabilitation contributes to the more successful life of patients with schizophrenia. Since schizophrenia often begins at a crucial age for development of career (from 18 to 35 years) and often prevents normal cognitive functioning, most patients do not have the necessary preparation for skilled work. Rehabilitation programs include vocational guidance, vocational training; consultations on the management of money and the use of public transport, as well as provide an opportunity to gain skills in social behavior and working relationships.

Sanitary-educational work with the family. Patients with schizophrenia are often discharged from the hospital in the care of their family, so to prevent relapse it is very important that relatives know as much as possible about the disease. To help his sick relative effectively fight the disease, family members must have different ways of helping the patient adhere to the prescribed course of treatment; they should be armed with a full arsenal of methods of psycho-physiological adaptation and have the skills to solve problems. It is also very important to know where the outpatient and family care services are providing support to schizophrenic patients and those who care for them.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy. Cognitive-behavioral therapy is applicable in the treatment of patients whose symptoms persist even when taking medication. A specialist in cognitive therapy teaches patients with schizophrenia how to check whether the realities correspond to their thoughts and feelings, how to “not listen” to voices and how to shake off their apathy. This treatment effectively relieves symptoms and reduces the risk of relapse.

Mutual help groups. Self-help groups for schizophrenic patients and their families are becoming more common. Although these groups do not include professional psychologists, the members of the group themselves are a constant source of mutual support and comfort, which also has a therapeutic effect. In self-help groups, people begin to realize that others have the same problems as they do, and cease to feel isolated because of illness or illness of their loved ones. The ties and acquaintances established in mutual aid groups contribute to social initiatives. Working together, families of patients can fight for scientific research, for increasing the number of hospitals and public care programs for patients; and patients with joint efforts can draw public attention to the discrimination still existing in the modern world of people with mental illnesses.

Both support groups and initiative groups are an excellent means of early recovery for people suffering from various kinds of mental disorders.

What is the role of the patient care system?

Help to mentally ill people is provided by families, professional nurses and caregivers at home or in day hospitals, friends or neighbors, graduated social workers, as well as all others who care about their destiny. Patients with schizophrenia quite often need the help of other people.

How to achieve treatment. Patients with schizophrenia often resist treatment, believing that their delusions and hallucinations are actually real and that they do not need any psychiatric help. Family and friends should take measures to save their native people at a critical time.

Any attempt at compulsory treatment causes problems with civil rights. The laws protecting patients from compulsory treatment have become tougher and help to a mentally ill person can be very difficult. Laws vary from state to state, but in general, if, due to a mental disorder, people pose a danger to themselves or others and refuse medical help, family members or friends can call the police to take the patient to the hospital. In the admission department, a psychiatrist assessing the patient’s condition will determine whether voluntary or involuntary hospitalization is required.

Those who do not want to be treated mentally ill can hide strange behavior and ideas from the psychiatrist, so family members and friends should ask the doctor who conducts the examination of the patient, talking privately and telling him what happened at home. After this, the psychiatrist will be able to interview the patient and see for himself the deformity of his thinking. Specialists are required to personally verify abnormal behavior and personally hear crazy thoughts before they can legitimately recommend forced hospitalization, and family members and friends can provide the information necessary for this.

Care for the sick. It is very important that after discharge from the hospital, schizophrenic patients continue to be treated and take medicine. If patients stop taking medication or stop seeing a doctor, the psychotic symptoms will appear again. If these symptoms become severe, patients may not be able to take care of themselves, being unable to take care of food, clothing and shelter, neglecting personal hygiene, facing the threat of being in the street or in a prison where they are unlikely to find the help they need .

Family and friends can help patients learn to set realistic goals for a return to life in society. The entire process should be broken down into small stages, each of which is absolutely achievable, and each step of the patient along this path should be provided with support. Mentally ill people, experiencing pressure and being criticized, usually regress and their symptoms worsen. To focus their attention on what they are doing right is the best way to help them move forward.

How should one respond if a schizophrenic patient says something strange or obviously abnormal? Since abnormal beliefs or hallucinations are absolutely real for the patient, attempts to dissuade him, assuring that these thoughts and visions are wrong or a figment of the imagination, will not be of use. Agree with delirium – is also not an option. It’s best to say calmly that you look at things differently, but you recognize the right of every person to his own opinion. Polite, well-disposed and kind attitude, while not tolerating dangerous or inappropriate behavior, is the most appropriate approach to people suffering from this disease.

Forecasts and prospects for the future

Over the past 30 years, predictions for patients with schizophrenia have improved. And although this disease is still incurable, effective treatment has been developed and the condition of many patients is improved so much that they can live an independent and full-blooded life.

Scientific research in the field of schizophrenia is going through very interesting times today. Rapid development of knowledge in genetics, neurology and behavioral studies will allow us to better understand the causes of the disease, to find ways to prevent it, and to develop new methods of treatment that will allow schizophrenic patients to realize their potential to the fullest.

How can I become a participant of experienced research on schizophrenia?

Scientists all over the world are engaged in the study of schizophrenia to find new methods of preventing and treating the disease. The only way to understand the disease is to investigate how it proceeds in the patients themselves. That’s why a lot of different studies are conducted. To participate in some of them it is necessary to change medicines, for others, as, for example, for genetic studies, drugs need not be changed.

To get information about public and private studies of schizophrenia, go to ClinicalTrials.gov. The received information should be discussed with the attending physician and follow his recommendations.

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