Of all the misunderstood mental illnesses, schizophrenia gets an especially bad rap. The condition is characterized by disordered thoughts, unusual speech and behavior, and an inaccurate view of reality. It's often used as the go-to disorder for violent criminals in movies and television shows, but in reality, schizophrenia affects a diverse range of people, many of whom are able to lead normal, satisfying lives with the help of treatments like therapy and medication. From symptoms to possible causes, here are some facts you should know about schizophrenia.
1. Schizophrenia literally means “split mind” ...
The name schizophrenia comes from the Greek words skhizein ("to split") and phren ("mind"). Swiss psychiatrist Paul Eugen Bleuler came up with the word in 1910 for the dissociation of various mental functions he saw in his patients. Before the term schizophrenia was coined, patients who exhibited symptoms of the condition were thought to have something called dementia praecox or “dementia of early life.” When Bleuler observed that the disease didn’t necessarily lead to mental deterioration—and patients were even capable of improving—he realized dementia wasn’t the problem.
2. ... but schizophrenia has nothing to do with split personalities.
Schizophrenia is not the same thing as dissociative identity disorder, which was previously known as multiple personality disorder. Someone can be diagnosed with dissociative identity disorder if they alternate between two or more identities, each with their own distinct traits. Schizophrenia, on the other hand, is characterized by auditory and visual hallucinations, amnesia, and general misperceptions of reality—none of which have anything to do with changing personalities. The association with split personalities is one of the biggest misconceptions attached to schizophrenia.
3. There are “positive” and “negative” symptoms of schizophrenia.
When Paul Eugen Bleuler coined the term, he also came up with a list of positive, negative, and cognitive symptoms of the disorder. Positive and negative in this case don’t mean good and bad. Positive is used to describe the characteristics of schizophrenia that shouldn’t occur in a healthy person, like paranoid thoughts and hallucinations. Symptoms that fall under the negative label include healthy traits that are missing from patients, like motivation, interest in life, and coherent speech. The last category, cognitive symptoms, covers disorganized thinking, gaps in memory, and other signs of mental dysfunction. Doctors still use the system devised by Bleuler to treat patients today.
4. Schizophrenia has genetic and environmental causes.
No one cause has been linked to schizophrenia. Doctors suspect that genetics may play a role in some cases: A chemical imbalance related to the neurotransmitter dopamine may increase someone’s chances of developing schizophrenia, as can complications during their birth. People with a parent with schizophrenia are more likely to have it themselves, but this is thought to be the result of a cocktail of genetic factors and not one specific gene mutation. There’s also a clear line between schizophrenia and environmental pressures. Stressful situations can trigger schizophrenia in people who are already predisposed to it. People with schizophrenia are also more likely to abuse substances (up to 50 percent are addicted to drugs or alcohol) but it’s not always clear when the behavior exacerbates the disorder or vice versa.
5. The first signs of schizophrenia usually appear in adolescence.
Most people with schizophrenia develop it fairly early in life. The most common time for symptoms to appear is in late adolescence and early adulthood. While male patients typically start dealing with schizophrenia in their late teens or early 20s, women tend to develop it a bit later in their late 20s and early 30s.The brain goes through crucial changes in late adolescence, which could make it especially vulnerable to psychotic disorders like schizophrenia.
6. Hollywood fuels misconceptions about schizophrenia.
Schizophrenia is one of the most stigmatized mental illnesses, and that’s largely due to its portrayal in entertainment. When researchers looked at 41 movies featuring schizophrenic characters for a study published in 2012 [PDF], they found that 83 percent of them were depicted as dangerous to themselves or others. A third engaged in homicidal acts. In reality, violence is uncommon among people with schizophrenia and someone with the disorder is by no means destined to be a criminal. Struggles that are much more common for schizophrenic people—such as negative symptoms like depressed feelings and unexpressive speech—are rarely seen on screen.
7. Schizophrenia is rare.
Though many people have heard of the condition, schizophrenia isn’t very widespread. According to the World Health Organization, it affects 21 million people worldwide, or less than 1 percent of the global population.
8. Schizophrenia patients have a greater risk of earlier death.
The disease itself may not be deadly, but schizophrenia can have life-threatening consequences. Patients with schizophrenia are two to three times more likely to die early than people without it, and they generally live 20 years less. The causes of death that contribute to this high mortality rate are suicide, cancer, and heart disease. Drug and alcohol abuse and cigarette smoking is more common among people with schizophrenia, all of which can lead to a decline in health. The antipsychotic drugs many people with schizophrenia take for most of their lives can also cause adverse side effects like metabolic issues.
9. Other mental illnesses are related to schizophrenia.
Schizophrenic patients are at a greater risk for a slew of different mental illnesses. Rates of depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder are all higher among people with schizophrenia. Symptoms of schizophrenia can overlap with these disorders: Suicidal thoughts and a lack of motivation and interest in life are schizophrenic symptoms that are also hallmarks of depression.
10. There are many ways to treat schizophrenia.
While there’s no cure for schizophrenia, the illness is highly treatable. Antipsychotic medications that target the neurotransmitter dopamine are commonly prescribed to patients. Some examples of these drugs include aripiprazole (Abilify), brexpiprazole (Rexulti), and lurasidone (Latuda). Drugs can make life manageable for schizophrenic patients, but they can also come with side effects such as weight gain, constipation, low blood pressure, and even seizures. Psychosocial therapy is another common treatment for people with schizophrenia.