Schizophrenia as an Illness


Symptoms and Signs of Schizophrenia
  • Hallucinations and Illusions are disturbances of perception that are common in people suffering from schizophrenia. Hallucinations are perceptions that occur without connection to an appropriate source. Although hallucinations can occur in any sensory form — auditory (sound), visual (sight), tactile (touch), gustatory (taste), and olfactory (smell) — hearing voices that other people do not hear is the most common type of hallucination in schizophrenia. Voices may describe the patient's activities, carry on a conversation, warn of impending dangers, or even issue orders to the individual. Illusions, on the other hand, occur when a sensory stimulus is present but is incorrectly interpreted by the individual.
  • Distorted Perceptions of Reality. People with schizophrenia may have perceptions of reality that are strikingly different from the reality seen and shared by others around them. Living in a world distorted by hallucinations and delusions, individuals with schizophrenia may feel frightened, anxious, and confused. In part because of the unusual realities they experience, people with schizophrenia may behave very differently at various times. Sometimes they may seem distant, detached, or preoccupied and may even sit as rigidly as a stone, not moving for hours or uttering a sound. Other times they may move about constantly — always occupied, appearing wide-awake, vigilant, and alert.
  • Delusions are false personal beliefs that are not subject to reason or contradictory evidence and are not explained by a person's usual cultural concepts. Delusions may take on different themes. For example, patients suffering from paranoid-type symptoms — roughly one-third of people with schizophrenia — often have delusions of persecution, or false and irrational beliefs that they are being cheated, harassed, poisoned, or conspired against. These patients may believe that they, or a member of the family or someone close to them, are the focus of this persecution. In addition, delusions of grandeur, in which a person may believe he or she is a famous or important figure, may occur in schizophrenia. Sometimes the delusions experienced by people with schizophrenia are quite bizarre; for instance, believing that a neighbor is controlling their behavior with magnetic waves; that people on television are directing special messages to them; or that their thoughts are being broadcast aloud to others.
  • Substance Abuse is a common concern of the family and friends of people with schizophrenia. Since some people who abuse drugs may show symptoms similar to those of schizophrenia, people with schizophrenia may be mistaken for people high on drugs. While most researchers do not believe that substance abuse causes schizophrenia, people who have schizophrenia often abuse alcohol and/or drugs, and may have particularly bad reactions to certain drugs. Substance abuse can reduce the effectiveness of treatment for schizophrenia. Stimulants (such as amphetamines or cocaine) may cause major problems for patients with schizophrenia, as may PCP or marijuana. In fact, some people experience a worsening of their schizophrenic symptoms when they are taking such drugs. Substance abuse also reduces the likelihood that patients will follow the treatment plans recommended by their doctors. The most common form of substance use disorder in people with schizophrenia is nicotine dependence due to smoking. While the prevalence of smoking in the U.S. population is about 25 to 30 percent, the prevalence among people with schizophrenia is approximately three times as high. Research has shown that the relationship between smoking and schizophrenia is complex. Although people with schizophrenia may smoke to self medicate their symptoms, smoking has been found to interfere with the response to antipsychotic drugs. Several studies have found that schizophrenia patients who smoke need higher doses of antipsychotic medication. Quitting smoking may be especially difficult for people with schizophrenia, because the symptoms of nicotine withdrawal may cause a temporary worsening of schizophrenia symptoms. However, smoking cessation strategies that include nicotine replacement methods may be effective. Doctors should carefully monitor medication dosage and response when patients with schizophrenia either start or stop smoking.
  • Disordered Thinking. Schizophrenia often affects a person's ability to "think straight." Thoughts may come and go rapidly; the person may not be able to concentrate on one thought for very long and may be easily distracted, unable to focus attention. People with schizophrenia may not be able to sort out what is relevant and what is not relevant to a situation. The person may be unable to connect thoughts into logical sequences, with thoughts becoming disorganized and fragmented. This lack of logical continuity of thought, termed "thought disorder" can make conversation very difficult and may contribute to social isolation. If people cannot make sense of what an individual is saying, they are likely to become uncomfortable and tend to leave that person alone.
  • Emotional Expression. People with schizophrenia often show "blunted" or "flat" affect. This refers to a severe reduction in emotional expressiveness. A person with schizophrenia may not show the signs of normal emotion, perhaps may speak in a monotonous voice, have diminished facial expressions, and appear extremely apathetic. The person may withdraw socially, avoiding contact with others; and when forced to interact, he or she may have nothing to say, reflecting "impoverished thought." Motivation can be greatly decreased, as can interest in or enjoyment of life. In some severe cases, a person can spend entire days doing nothing at all, even neglecting basic hygiene. These problems with emotional expression and motivation, which may be extremely troubling to family members and friends, are symptoms of schizophrenia — not character flaws or personal weaknesses.
  • Normal Versus Abnormal. At times, normal individuals may feel, think, or act in ways that resemble schizophrenia. Normal people may sometimes be unable to "think straight." They may become extremely anxious, for example, when speaking in front of groups and may feel confused, be unable to pull their thoughts together, and forget what they had intended to say. This is not schizophrenia. At the same time, people with schizophrenia do not always act abnormally. Indeed, some people with the illness can appear completely normal and be perfectly responsible, even while they experience hallucinations or delusions. An individual's behavior may change over time, becoming bizarre if medication is stopped and returning closer to normal when receiving appropriate treatment.

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