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Symptoms and treatment

Schizophrenia is a chronic and severe mental disorder where psychotic symptoms are a prominent aspect of the illness. Affecting an estimated 1 percent of the general population over 18, schizophrenia involves significant dysfunction in interpersonal relationships, work or education and self-care. The psychotic symptoms include delusions, hallucinations, disorganized speech and disorganized or catatonic behavior.


People suffering from schizophrenia often hear voices when no one else does (auditory hallucinations) or believe they are being spied on, tricked or stalked (paranoid schizophrenia). When in conversation, a person with schizophrenia can often become sidetracked, and will give an answer to a question that might be completely unrelated to the topic. In the worst cases, their speech is almost incoherent; this is sometimes described as "word salad." If the person affected has catatonic schizophrenia, the symptoms include psychomotor disturbances that range from excessive motor activity to complete immobility.


Schizophrenia is a disease that typically begins between the ages of 15 and 25, with the age of onset being several years earlier for men than woman. Estradiol, the most potent naturally occurring estrogen, possesses neuron-protective properties, which may explain why women have a less severe progression of the disease and a better response to therapeutic treatment than men do.


Considering the seriousness of schizophrenia, it is easy to understand the fear this diagnosis carries. However, through research and newer, more effective drug therapies, schizophrenia is now a treatable and highly manageable illness. When the treatment guidelines combine medication with psychosocial rehabilitation and participation in peer support groups, the affected person has a good chance of achieving and maintaining stability.

The older, conventional antipsychotics and the new generation of atypical antipsychotics are the main classes of drugs used to treat those diagnosed as schizophrenic. Since the newer generation of antipsychotics carries fewer side effects, the doctor will usually begin treatment with one of the medications from the atypical class.

However, it is important to understand that all of these drug therapies have side effects and may need to be discontinued if those side effects become severe. Since everyone is different, it is very common for the person diagnosed with a psychiatric illness to have several "med trials" before finding the right dose or most effective combination of two or more medications.

Unfortunately, because schizophrenia is a thought disorder, many who suffer from it become confused about their treatment and have a tendency to stop taking their medication. Due to disorganized thinking, they simply forget, believe the medication is no longer working or view the side effects as unacceptable.

What You Can Do

As a family member or loved one of someone diagnosed with schizophrenia, it is important that you monitor their drug compliance and report any significant side effects to the psychiatrist. In order to maintain stability, it is vital that the person does not stop taking their medication without a doctor's supervision. Stopping a needed medication places the person affected with schizophrenia at a higher risk for an acute psychotic episode that could be severe enough to require hospitalization.

If you suspect that a loved one is developing or has the signs of schizophrenia, it is imperative that you seek a psychiatric evaluation for this person. You can begin this process by obtaining references for psychiatrists from your family doctor or by contacting your local NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) chapter and visiting their website. Any of these resources can direct you to a competent psychiatrist for the proper evaluation of the symptoms and a correct diagnosis.

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