Schizophrenia is a serious mental illness that affects how a person thinks, feels, and behaves. People with schizophrenia may seem like they have lost touch with reality, which can be distressing for them and for their families and friends. The symptoms of schizophrenia can make it difficult to participate in usual, everyday activities, but effective treatments are available. Many people who receive treatment can engage in school or work, achieve independence, and enjoy personal relationships.
Onset and Symptoms
It’s important to recognize the symptoms of schizophrenia and seek help as early as possible. People with schizophrenia are usually diagnosed between the ages of 16 and 30, after the first episode of psychosis. Starting treatment as soon as possible following the first episode of psychosis is an important step toward recovery. However, research shows that gradual changes in thinking, mood and social functioning often appear before the first episode of psychosis. Schizophrenia is rare in younger children.
Schizophrenia symptoms can differ from person to person, but they generally fall into three main categories: psychotic, negative, and cognitive.
Psychotic symptoms include changes in the way a person thinks, acts, and experiences the world. People with psychotic symptoms may lose a shared sense of reality with others and experience the world in a distorted way. For some people, these symptoms come and go. For others, the symptoms become stable over time. Psychotic symptoms include:
- Hallucinations: When a person sees, hears, smells, tastes, or feels things that are not actually there. Hearing voices is common for people with schizophrenia. People who hear voices may hear them for a long time before family or friends notice a problem.
- Delusions: When a person has strong beliefs that are not true and may seem irrational to others. For example, individuals experiencing delusions may believe that people on the radio and television are sending special messages that require a certain response, or they may believe that they are in danger or that others are trying to hurt them.
- Thought disorder: When a person has ways of thinking that are unusual or illogical. People with thought disorders may have trouble organizing their thoughts and speech. Sometimes a person will stop talking in the middle of a thought, jump from topic to topic, or makeup words that have no meaning.
- Movement disorder: When a person exhibits abnormal body movements. People with a movement disorder may repeat certain motions over and over.
Negative symptoms include loss of motivation, loss of interest or enjoyment in daily activities, withdrawal from social life, difficulty showing emotions, and difficulty functioning normally. Negative symptoms include:
- Having trouble planning and sticking with activities, such as grocery shopping
- Having trouble anticipating and feeling pleasure in everyday life
- Talking in a dull voice and showing limited facial expression
- Avoiding social interaction or interacting in socially awkward ways
- Having very low energy and spending a lot of time in passive activities. In extreme cases, a person might stop moving or talking for a while, which is a rare condition called catatonia.
These symptoms are sometimes mistaken for symptoms of depression or other mental illnesses.
Cognitive symptoms include problems in attention, concentration, and memory. These symptoms can make it hard to follow a conversation, learn new things, or remember appointments. A person’s level of cognitive functioning is one of the best predictors of their day-to-day functioning. Cognitive functioning is evaluated using specific tests. Cognitive symptoms include:
- Having trouble processing information to make decisions
- Having trouble using information immediately after learning it
- Having trouble focusing or paying attention