Schizophrenia is a lifelong mental disorder which interferes with normal brain functions and can alter your perception of reality. People with schizophrenia often exhibit odd or disorganised behaviour. Sufferers may experience visual or auditory hallucinations and can often believe others are trying to harm them. In most cases symptoms will appear in the late teens or early adulthood but in some cases schizophrenia can appear much later or earlier. Schizophrenia is, in general, more severe the earlier symptoms appear. It also has a tendency to be more severe in men than in women.

The symptoms of schizophrenia are usually put into two groups; positive and negative. Positive symptoms are related to abnormal experiences . These include delusions, which are beliefs that you hold with absolute conviction. This usually follows a period where you feel there is something wrong but can’t explain what it is. Delusions can also develop as a way of explaining hallucinations that you’re experiencing. For example hearing voices may lead you to believe you are being watched. These can develop into paranoid delusions which can range from unusual ideas of persecution, such as being spied on by the government to everyday delusions like a partner being unfaithful.

Another common symptom of schizophrenia is hallucinations. This happens when you can hear, see or feel something that isn’t there. For most people with schizophrenia hearing voices which sound completely real is a common symptom. These can appear in objects like a radio and can talk to you directly or they may talk about you to each other. Often these voices will tell you to do self-destructive things and you may feel that you have to obey them. Voices are usually critical, rude and abusive but can sometimes be pleasant. Visual hallucinations or those of smell, touch or taste also occur but these are much less common.

The final ‘positive’ symptom is a feeling of being controlled or having your thoughts or actions taken over by outside forces. Common delusions include that thoughts are being ‘planted’ in your head, that thoughts are being ‘stolen’ from you or that your thoughts are being broadcast to others.

‘Negative’ symptoms of schizophrenia include a loss of concentration, a lack of motivation and excessive tiredness. These can occur naturally or may be brought on by the medications used to treat the ‘positive’ symptoms. These symptoms mean sufferers are usually unable to cope with a job or housework and sadly, self-harm and suicide are common in those with Schizophrenia.

Schizophrenia is usually treated through a combination of therapy and medications. The medications usually prescribed are antipsychotics. These reduce the positive symptoms but may take a week or two to build up an effect and have little effect on the negative symptoms. Therapy such as cognitive behaviour therapy is widely used to treat schizophrenia. These aim to reduce symptoms and improve issues which are related like self-esteem and social functioning. Family therapy has also been shown to have benefits and there is an increasing number of self-help aids available to carers.

Sometimes schizophrenia may appear suddenly, without warning but for most sufferers it will develop slowly. There are several ‘warning signs’ and usually a steady decline in functioning before the first episode. People with schizophrenia in the early stages can seem unmotivated or reclusive and may also appear eccentric. They may say odd things, neglect their appearance and their performance at work or school will drop.

The exact causes of schizophrenia are not fully understood but research suggests that a combination of genetic and environmental factors act together to cause the disorder. Research has shown that schizophrenia has a strong level of heritability. But although genetics play a part in the disorder many who develop schizophrenia have no family history of it at all. Similarly others who do have a genetic predisposition to the disorder will not go on to develop it.

Environmental factors can act on this genetic susceptibility to trigger schizophrenia. Research has shown that an urban environment and low income or other social factors, stress and abuse during childhood can act to trigger the disorder as can several medical problems. These include low oxygen levels during birth and exposure to certain viruses in the infant stage. There’s also evidence to suggest that an imbalance in certain chemicals in the brain like neurotransmitters and proteins can cause schizophrenia. Also abnormalities in the structure of the brain can also play a role in the development of schizophrenia.

Due to it’s volatile nature schizophrenia can cause many problems to the sufferer and those around them. Relationships can suffer as schizophrenics often isolate themselves or withdraw. In addition they may be suspicious of family and friends due to paranoid delusions. Problems with alcohol or drugs can often occur in schizophrenics, they are often used to reduce symptoms and this is known as self-medicating. These problems can often interfere with the medications that may be prescribed for the disorder. There is an increased risk of suicide in those suffering with schizophrenia, especially during a psychotic or depressive episode. Any threats or talk of suicide should therefore be taken very seriously.