Q: There are a few members of my family who have been diagnosed with schizophrenia. I am wondering if you could tell me a little about this illness.
A: Schizophrenia is a mental illness in which the individual has episodes of hallucinations, delusions, preoccupations and disordered thought processes. These are all states in which the individual has a poor sense of reality and may need intervention from someone who will be able to keep them safe. Many people who have schizophrenia will have periods of time when they have no apparent symptoms. Symptoms appear during an acute episode. Many of the problems that this population experiences, however, are indirect. People may see the individual while they are experiencing symptoms and therefore, acting bizarre, and they begin to think of them a “crazy”. When the individual is not in the acute state, however, people still think of him or her as “crazy”. The individual’s biggest worry is the fear of another attack and further public ridicule. Because of these misperceptions, loneliness, social isolation and unemployment are common secondary concerns of the schizophrenia sufferer. This in turn leads to anxiety and depression.
Although studies vary, it would appear that schizophrenia affects approximately 1% of the population and affects men and women equally. It usually shows up in adolescence or early adulthood but can come later in life. It is more common in families where someone else has the illness and so it does seem to have some genetic base but there is uncertainty as to whether other things affect it and to what extent.
Schizophrenia is treated with medication and psychotherapy. This is one illness where medication is critical. Many of radical cases that hit the news come about as a result of someone not taking their medication. Although the diagnosis and medication must come from a psychiatrist, psychotherapy can be provided by a qualified, aware, professional from a discipline such as social work. Psychotherapy must address the fall-out of the episodes– the anxiety, depression, self-esteem and social skills, for example. Medication can frequently keep the attacks away, but it is imperative that social functioning not drop to the point where the individual cannot manage in society. This can become more crippling that the illness itself.