Schizophrenia is a brain disorder that is characterized by disturbances in perception and disorganization in thinking and behaviour. Those with schizophrenia often experience symptoms such as hearing voices and paranoid or unusual thoughts. This disorder has nothing to do with a split or multiple personality, which is a common misperception. Schizophrenia is a complex disorder that shows itself in many different forms and its outcome varies depending on the severity of the illness, the rapidity of diagnosis and the effectiveness of the treatments used. It is comprised of two groups of symptoms: negative (such as social withdrawal, apathy, emotional unresponsiveness) and positive (such as delusions, hallucinations, bizarre behaviour). In the past, it was thought that having schizophrenia meant a lifetime of disability, but current thinking and research show that many with this disorder may have very good long-term outcomes.

Schizophrenia affects about one per cent of the population. This prevalence appears to be the same across countries, cultures,
and socioeconomic groups. The disorder usually begins in the adolescent or early adult years and is slightly more common in males than in females. The causes of the disorder are a topic of ongoing research. Current evidence indicates that genetic factors are the most important, but that non-genetic factors such as drug abuse, childhood head injury and infection during a mother’s pregnancy (e.g., the influenza virus) can also play a part in the develop- ment of schizophrenia.

Schizophrenia typically develops gradually over a number of years, but in some situations can develop quite rapidly. Usually, the “negative” symptoms start to show first, which include apathy, depression, and social withdrawal. In the later stages, the “positive” symptoms, such as delusions, illogical thinking and hallucinations, develop. There is good reason to believe that identifying and diagnosing schizophrenia in its early stages improves outcomes and greatly limits the degree of disability that develops.

Recovering from schizophrenia involves a comprehensive treatment approach. Anti-psychotic medications help to manage symptoms (e.g., hallucinations), and various social therapies help with re-integration back into normal activities of life, since those with schizophrenia often withdraw from regular activities (e.g., school, work, relationships). Both aspects of treatment are key to managing this disorder.

A diagnosis from a qualified health practitioner (e.g., psychiatrist) is always important if you are seeing symptoms that suggest something might be wrong. The symptoms of schizophrenia can be similar to other disorders such as depression and bipolar affective disorder (see Mood Disorders in this handbook). There are other medical illnesses, such as epilepsy, that can also cause some of these types of symptoms, as well as a number of drugs of abuse, such as marijuana and cocaine, which can cause some of these symptoms. Therefore, it is important to obtain a proper diagnosis, since similar symptoms can be seen across a number of disorders.

It is important to note that schizophrenia is associated with a high risk of suicide; studies suggest that 10-15% of individuals with schizophrenia will take their own lives and this is most likely to occur in the early years of the illness (see Suicide section in this handbook). There is good reason to believe that with aggressive and comprehensive treatment, the rate of suicide can be dramatically reduced.

  • Early intervention is key to managing the disorder and preventing further disability.
  • Get help from a qualified health practitioner, including a professional diagnosis. An accurate diagnosis will help to prevent any incorrect “labeling” of your child by others.
  • Obtain a second opinion if possible.
  • Find a support group for both you and your child, and exchange strategies.
  • Learn all you can about the disorder and educate your family and your child about the disorder.
  • Don’t compare your child to siblings or other children. Treat your child as a unique individual.
  • Re-evaluate and modify strategies as necessary. Work closely with your child’s teacher, doctor, and school team.

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