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Understanding schizophrenia

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Schizophrenia is a serious disorder which affects how a person thinks, feels and acts. Someone with schizophrenia may have difficulty distinguishing between what is real and what is imaginary; may be unresponsive or withdrawn; and may have difficulty expressing normal emotions in social situations.

Contrary to public perception, schizophrenia is not split personality or multiple personality. The vast majority of people with schizophrenia are not violent and do not pose a danger to others. Schizophrenia is not caused by childhood experiences, poor parenting or lack of willpower, nor are the symptoms identical for each person.

What causes schizophrenia?

The cause of schizophrenia is still unclear. Some theories about the cause of this disease include: genetics (heredity), biology (abnormalities in the brain’s chemistry or structure); and/or possible viral infections and immune disorders.

Genetics (Heredity)

Scientists recognize that the disorder tends to run in families and that a person inherits a tendency to develop the disease. Similar to some other genetically-related illnesses, schizophrenia may appear when the body undergoes hormonal and physical changes (like those that occur during puberty in the teen and young adult years) or after dealing with highly stressful situations.

What are the early warning signs of schizophrenia?

The signs of schizophrenia are different for everyone. Symptoms may develop slowly over months or years, or may appear very abruptly. The disease may come and go in cycles of relapse and remission.

Behaviours that are early warning signs of schizophrenia include:

* Hearing or seeing something that isn’t there

* A constant feeling of being watched

* Peculiar or nonsensical way of speaking or writing

* Strange body positioning

* Feeling indifferent to very important situations

* Deterioration of academic or work performance

* A change in personal hygiene and appearance

* A change in personality

* Increasing withdrawal from social situations

* Irrational, angry or fearful response to loved ones

* Inability to sleep or concentrate

* Inappropriate or bizarre behavior

* Extreme preoccupation with religion or the occult

Anyone who experiences several of these symptoms for more than two weeks should seek help immediately.

What are the symptoms of schizophrenia?

A medical or mental health professional may use the following terms when discussing the symptoms of schizophrenia:

Positive symptoms are disturbances that are “added” to the person’s personality, such as:

Delusions – false ideas – individuals may believe that someone is spying on him or her, or that they are someone famous (or a religious figure).

Hallucinations – Seeing, feeling, tasting, hearing or smelling something that doesn’t really exist. The most common experience is hearing imaginary voices that give commands or comments to the individual.

Disordered thinking and speech – moving from one topic to another, in a nonsensical fashion; Individuals may also make up their own words or sounds, rhyme in a way that doesn’t make sense, or repeat words and ideas.

Disorganized behaviour – this can range from having problems with routine behaviours like hygiene or choosing appropriate clothing for the weather, to unprovoked outbursts, to impulsive and uninhibited actions. A person may also have movements that seem anxious, agitated, tense or constant, without any apparent reason.

Negative symptoms are capabilities that are “lost” from the person’s personality.

* Social withdrawal

* Extreme apathy (lack of interest or enthusiasm)

* Lack of drive or initiative

* Emotional flatness

Next week we will examine: How is schizophrenia treated?

Dr Miller is Health Psychologist at the Milton Cato Memorial Hospital

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