Smiley Australia

Information on Schizophrenia

Schizophrenia is a descriptive term referring to a group of unspecified mental illnesses which share the common characteristic of psychosis and result in a substantial disturbance in brain function and in some cases brain structure.

Regarded as a complex syndrome it is not well understood and is thought to arise from a combination of risk factors including genetic vulnerability arising from multiple genes of small effect in combination with multiple precipitating factors.

Family history was thought to be the most potent risk factor however there are now thought to be other factors contributing to the onset of schizophrenia including events prior to birth (perinatal) such as viral infections and later developmental abberations in the Central Nervous System (CNS) possibly compounded by substance abuse, developmental stress or other causes.

It has now been confirmed that people with Schizophrenia have mild structural and significant functional abnormalities in the CNS, however these abnormalities are also present in people who don't have schizophrenia. Why some people develop the disease and others don't is unknown.

In susceptible people, poor social, coping and communication skills combined with extreme stress are risk factors that may trigger the onset of acute psychotic episodes of the illness.

There is still no test available that will confirm a diagnosis of schizophrenia.

The Symptoms:

In order to be diagnosed with Schizophrenia a person must display some positive psychotic symptoms at some stage of their illness. While mania and major depression may occur they are not prominent or ongoing features of the illness, however negative and cognitive symptoms form a major part of the disorder.

Positive symptoms are hallucinations and delusions.

Negative symptoms include loss of initiative, blunted or inapropriate emotions, loss of sexual interest, loss of social interest, loss of ability to draw pleasure from life.

Sufferers also exhibit disorganized thought, behaviour and speech.

Onset of the disease varies and may occur slowly over a long period of time.

Phases of the Illness:

The first phase known as the 'prodromal' phase includes an obvious deterioration of previous functioning including social withdrawal and deterioration in academic and occupational functioning. Mild positive and negative symptoms are usually also present.

The active phase of the illness includes the transition into the first psychotic episode and recurring episodes of psychosis. Treatment prior to the first episode of psychosis or during the first episode of psychosis is known to result in full or partial remission of symptoms in up to 90% of cases.

Early intervention is essential to good prognosis and recovery and to minimise the physical changes in the brain that may be occuring at that time. Unfortunately, many sufferers remain undiagnosed and continue to suffer psychotic episodes untreated. In addition to the difficulties faced from the illness itself, the ensuing trauma of social difficulties can have a lasting effect on the sufferer.

A third stage (the residual or stable phase) may follow the active stage of the illness. Features of this stage can be similar to the first stage although impairment in role functioning and affective blunting or flattening are more common features. There may also be persistent psychotic symptoms of varying intensity.

There is usually a pattern to active symptoms depending on the sufferer's ability to maintain medication and the social and family stressors which can precipitate episodes.

The course of the illness usually cycles from active symptoms(episodes) brought on by medication non-compliance, drug use, stress or a combination of these, and residual impairment between episodes.

As with all mental illnesses, a supportive family environment is critical to keeping the sufferer as well as possible. This can be difficult on family members and carers as the nature of Schizophrenia can cause the sufferer to alienate the very people who can help the most.

Support for family and carers is of equal importance as that of the sufferer themselves. There are a number of support organisations for carers as well as local parents groups which are helpful especially in the early stages of the illness as a source of information and support.

See our 'Helpful Links' page under 'Schizophrenia' and 'Carers' for support organisations.

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