Introduction to Schizophrenia

As with many mental disorders, the causes are poorly understood. Friends and family commonly are shocked, afraid or angry when they learn of the diagnosis. Expectations become more realistic as schizophrenia is better understood as a brain disease that requires ongoing treatment. Demystification of the illness, along with recent insights from basic neuroscience, gives new hope for finding more effective treatments for an illness that previously carried a grave prognosis.

Schizophrenia is characterized by a broad range of unusual behaviors that cause profound disruption in the lives of the patients suffering from the condition and in the lives of the people around them. Schizophrenia strikes without regard to gender, race, social class or culture.

One of the most important kinds of impairment caused by schizophrenia involves the person’s thought processes. The individual can lose much of the ability to rationally evaluate his surroundings and interactions with others. There can be hallucinations and delusions, which reflect distortions in the perception and interpretation of reality. The resulting behaviors may seem bizarre to the casual observer, even though they may be consistent with the schizophrenic’s abnormal perceptions and beliefs.

Nearly one-third of those diagnosed with schizophrenia will attempt suicide. About 10 percent of those with the diagnosis will commit suicide within 20 years of the beginning of the disorder. Patients with schizophrenia are not likely to share their suicidal intentions with others, making life-saving interventions more difficult. The risk of depression needs special mention due to the high rate of suicide in these patients. The most significant risk of suicide in schizophrenia is among males under 30 who have some symptoms of depression and a relatively recent hospital discharge. Other risks include imagined voices directing the patient toward self-harm (auditory command hallucinations) and intense false beliefs (delusions).

The relationship of schizophrenia to substance abuse is significant. Due to impairments in insight and judgment, people with schizophrenia may be less able to judge and control the temptations and resulting difficulties associated with drug or alcohol abuse.

In addition, it is not uncommon for people suffering from this disorder to try to “self-medicate” their otherwise debilitating symptoms with mind-altering drugs. The abuse of such substances, most commonly nicotine, alcohol, cocaine and marijuana, impedes treatment and recovery.


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