The brain interprets everything we see, smell, hear, taste, and feel, creating a version of reality that is personal and impossible to argue with. Throughout our lives, we are told to trust our senses and believe in the messages and perceptions that come from our conscious minds. But some mental illnesses can change the way the mind works, and when that happens, the messages that come from that mind can no longer be trusted.
That is exactly what happens with schizophrenia. According to the Schizophrenia and Related Disorders Alliance of America, approximately 3.5 million people in the United States have this disease, and it is one of the leading causes of disability in the United States.
Life with Schizophrenia
Schizophrenia is a mental illness that is characterized by unusual thought processes, emotions, and perceptions. The National Alliance on Mental Illness says symptoms typically start between ages 16 and 30, and those symptoms tend to come in two groups: positive and negative.
Positive schizophrenia symptoms are those found in people who have schizophrenia, which are absent in people who do not have the disease. These positive symptoms can include:
- Hallucinations: People with schizophrenia might hear voices or see objects that others cannot perceive.
- Delusions: People with schizophrenia might believe that other people or entities are trying to control their minds, read their thoughts, or otherwise harm or control them.
- Thought disorders: People with schizophrenia might get stuck on a thought that they cannot dislodge, or they may have other thought patterns that would seem unusual to someone who does not have schizophrenia.
- Movement disorders: Jerky or agitated body movements are somewhat common in people who have schizophrenia.
Negative schizophrenia symptoms involve disruptions to normal behaviors and/or emotions. They can include:
- Flat affect: People with schizophrenia may speak without using any vocal inflections, and they may hold their faces very still almost all the time.
- Depression: A lack of feelings of pleasure is common in those with schizophrenia.
- Lack of focus: People with schizophrenia may find it hard to either start or stop projects.
- Silence: People with schizophrenia may speak much less often than people without the disorder.
For someone with schizophrenia, the world is a completely foreign and dangerous place. These people may not be able to calm their worries and fears through thought alone, as their minds may continue to send them signals that are distorted or inaccurate. For them, the world cannot be trusted. They may not even realize that they are ill. People who try to help may be seen as players in a plot that could cause the person harm.
Without treatment, life with schizophrenia can be both terrifying and lonely. Many people with schizophrenia are driven to make a terrible decision. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about a third of people with schizophrenia will attempt suicide, and 1 person in 10 with schizophrenia will actually commit suicide.
Schizophrenia and Substance Abuse
An analysis in Medscape suggests that about half of all people living with schizophrenia also have a history of substance abuse at some point in life. While researchers do not know exactly why these two problems tend to crop up in the same people, there are some interesting theories that could explain the connection.
For example, portions of the brain that work a little differently in people with schizophrenia are often the targets of drugs of abuse. That means that some drugs provide a bigger boost of positive feelings for people with schizophrenia, and since these drugs seem really rewarding, they are likely to spark an addiction.
Also, many drugs seem to — at least at first — correct imbalances in the minds of people with schizophrenia. The depression these people feel, for example, comes from a deficit of a specific type of brain chemical. Drugs that boost this brain chemical could seem to balance out this issue and provide people with a shot at the happy feelings that have eluded them. Unfortunately, drugs that do cause this chemical boost tend to cause yet more damage to the mind, further reducing the brain’s ability to produce signals of happiness unless a bigger and bigger dose of the drug is present.
Finally, people with schizophrenia struggle with portions of the mind that have to do with impulse control and planning for the future. These are the portions of the brain anyone would need to lean on during the recovery process. These are portions of the brain that can control bad behavior. If a person with schizophrenia cannot control behavior, that person might not be able to stop taking drugs, even though the person might desperately want to do so.
Some drugs can also spark the emergence of latent schizophrenia. In an article published in the journal Treatment in Psychiatry, the authors suggest that cannabis has been associated with an early-onset form of schizophrenia, and that people with a history of cannabis abuse tend to have psychosis at a higher rate than people who do not have a history of cannabis abuse. The authors recommend helping people to avoid cannabis at all if they have a family history of schizophrenia, but that advice might come too late for people who already have the mental illness and a cannabis habit.
Even though schizophrenia is a very serious mental illness that is characterized by a great deal of suffering, and even though the things people do at home to deal with the disease rarely work, few people who have the disorder get help. In fact, according to the World Health Organization, only about 50 percent of people with the disorder get help in a treatment program.
It can be hard for families to stress the need for treatment to a person with schizophrenia. In this person’s mind, there is no mental illness. There is no problem at all, aside from the fact that the person is living in a world that suddenly seems dangerous. This person is not faking the behavior or trying to be difficult. The person may just be very hard to reach.
In these situations, it can be helpful to get a doctor’s help. During an appointment with a doctor, a formal diagnosis of schizophrenia can be made. With that diagnosis, the family may be able to take legal action to force the person to accept the possibility of treatment. Some people with schizophrenia respond to conversations with authority figures like doctors. Where families might not be able to have a breakthrough, a doctor might be able to make sense of the diagnosis and start the healing process rolling.
The first step in recovery involves gaining sobriety. As an article in Psych Central points out, drugs of abuse can reduce the effectiveness of treatments teams use for schizophrenia. Medications do not work as well when drugs are in play, and drugs can make listening and working in therapy hard.
Medical detox programs use a combination of medications and therapy to soothe the transition between intoxication and sobriety. Programs typically last for a week or so, but some can last much longer. Once that process is complete, people are ready to move on to the next stage of the healing process.
Medications are the cornerstone of a treatment program for schizophrenia, according to Mayo Clinic. Antipsychotics can correct imbalances in the brain that lead to both positive and negative schizophrenia symptoms, and that could help people with this disorder to see the world clearly, possibly for the very first time.
In addition to medications, teams use therapy to help people learn how to control their schizophrenia outbreaks and addiction relapses. The idea is to help people with these issues learn how to create a life that is protected and nurturing, so they will not be likely to backslide into bad habits and dangerous ideas when they are under some kind of stress or pressure. The family might obtain therapy as well. The family will need to be on the alert for breakthrough symptoms, so they can assist if and when things go bad. Therapy can help them learn to spot the signs and understand what to do when they appear.
Therapy and medications can help a family to overcome a crisis related to schizophrenia. But the disease cannot be cured. Even with excellent treatment programs, there is always the risk that schizophrenia symptoms will come back. That means the medications prescribed in the program must be taken for the rest of life. It means that some people with schizophrenia need to stay in touch with a counselor for the rest of life. If the person enrolls in formal treatment in a rehab center, the team can help that person to find a community doctor who can provide that follow-up care.
Families are key to the health and happiness of people with schizophrenia, but they do not have to do the work alone. Treatment programs can offer help, education, and vital assistance. Families should take advantage of that help — the sooner the better.