What Is Schizophrenia?

Schizophrenia is One of the Most Commonly Misunderstood Mental Illnesses

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If you've been experiencing worrying symptoms or have a loved one that's been diagnosed with schizophrenia, it can be overwhelming and discouraging. There is a good deal of false, outdated and misunderstood information out there that can give you the wrong ideas about the disease. But schizophrenia is a fairly common mental illness that does have treatment options available.

What is Schizophrenia?

Schizophrenia is a chronic and severe brain disorder that affects approximately 1% of both men and women worldwide.

It's a complex and often debilitating illness that affects how you think, feel and act. You may feel like you're disconnected from your environment and other people and have lost touch with what's going on. 

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder-5 (DSM-5), the tool used by healthcare professionals that establishes guidelines for mental illnesses, has updated its criteria for schizophrenia. In order for it be appropriately diagnosed, a minimum of two of the below symptoms must be displayed for at least six months: 

  • Delusions
  • Hallucinations
  • Disorganized speech and behavior
  • Other symptoms of social dysfunction 

Schizophrenia is usually diagnosed between the ages of 16 and 30. 

What Causes Schizophrenia?

While research has not yet identified a definitive cause of schizophrenia, it is believed to be linked to a chemical imbalance in the brain. The brain is made up of millions of long cells called neurons, which are organized into brain regions.

The neurons in some brain regions receive and process sensory information like sight or taste. Other brain regions process emotions like fear. Still other brain regions are responsible for organizing and coordinating information from all the different parts of the brain.

Neurons connect all of these regions in a very complex network.

Information is passed from neuron to neuron by sending chemical messages over the tiny gap between one neuron and the next. Those gaps are called synapses, and the chemical messengers are called neurotransmitters.

Most doctors and scientists believe that an imbalance in a neurotransmitter called dopamine is a central mechanism in the disease process of schizophrenia. Dopamine is involved in the transmission of signals that enable thoughts and feelings. Some research suggests that people with schizophrenia have too much dopamine in certain brain regions. The drugs that work best to control the symptoms of schizophrenia appear to regulate the levels of dopamine in the brain.

Is it Possible to Get Rid of Schizophrenia?

To date, there is not a cure for schizophrenia. However, through therapy and medication, it can be managed, allowing you to function more normally. Schizophrenia responds well to medications that treat the underlying chemical imbalances. Schizophrenia is treated with antipsychotic medications combined with psychosocial therapies and social supports.

One issue some people experience is that schizophrenia is sometimes confused with “split personalities,” a popular term for multiple personality disorder (MPD), in which a person appears to have more than one distinct identity. Schizophrenia is completely unrelated to MPD. MPD does not respond to medication and is usually treated by talk therapy to re-integrate the separate personalities. When people are misdiagnosed with MPD, it can negatively affect them by delaying access to the treatments they need. 

What’s It Like to Have Schizophrenia?

Schizophrenia is a chronic illness, which means that it never goes away. However, it can affect people in very different ways. Some people with schizophrenia have long periods in which their symptoms are under control and they function quite well, holding steady jobs and maintaining relationships. Others will have episodes of acute psychosis during which they become quite ill and need hospitalization. And there are some that are so severe that they need to be hospitalized for the long-term. 

There is still a great deal of stigma associated with schizophrenia due to misunderstandings and negative portrayals by the media. This can make having schizophrenia more difficult because you may not feel comfortable talking about it with friends, family or even a therapist. Most people with schizophrenia are not violent toward others and are no more violent than those without mental illness. 

The risk of suicide is greater than the risk of violence to others. Sadly, approximately 10% of people with schizophrenia commit suicide. If you or a loved one has had thoughts of suicide, please seek professional health from a healthcare provider specializing in schizophrenia. 

Many people with schizophrenia have poor insight into their condition and think that they are "cured". Because of this, they often stop taking their medication. Modern treatments are allowing people with schizophrenia to live fuller lives than at any time in history and so it is important for you to take your medication as prescribed. By following the appropriate treatment and working with your doctor, you can begin the path to recovery and lead a better life.  


American Psychiatric Association. "Schizophrenia". Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders-5, 2013. 

National Institute of Mental Health. "Schizophrenia: a detailed booklet that describes symptoms, causes, and treatments, with information on getting help and coping", 2006.  (2006) 

Torrey, E.F. Surviving Schizophrenia: a Manual for Families, Patients and Providers, 2006. 

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