Learning more about schizophrenia can help you better manage challenges, whether you’re living with schizophrenia or know someone who is.

Any mental health diagnosis can be stressful. But because schizophrenia is so misunderstood and stigmatized, diagnosis often comes with a unique set of challenges.

If you’re living with schizophrenia or supporting a loved one who is, you may at times feel overwhelmed, upset, and perhaps even scared.

It’s natural to wonder how this condition could affect your life, what treatment options are out there, and what the prognosis might be going forward. And in the absence of information, it can be easy to assume the worst.

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition (DSM-5), the symptoms of schizophrenia include:

  • Hallucinations: Hearing, seeing, or otherwise perceiving things that are not really there. It can be common for a person with schizophrenia to hear voices, but this is just one of many possible types of hallucinations.
  • Delusions: This might be a strongly held belief in something, despite evidence that the belief is false. Some people experience paranoid delusions and may believe they’re being followed or persecuted. Others may believe they’re being controlled or influenced, or that they have been chosen for a special mission.
  • Disorganized speech: Speech may be incoherent, rambling, or loosely connected so that others find it hard to follow.
  • Disorganized behavior: Behaviors could include problems with motor function, increased agitation, or catatonia.
  • Negative symptoms: These symptoms involve the absence of a trait that would otherwise be present, such as mood, speech, engagement with others, and motivation.

In order to diagnose schizophrenia, the DSM-5 states that a person must experience two or more of the symptoms above — including at least one of the first three symptoms listed — for at least 1 month.

One of the best ways you can manage and navigate challenges with a mental health condition is to equip yourself with as much information as possible.

By exploring the answers to these common questions about schizophrenia, you can empower yourself or your loved one to live well.

How common is schizophrenia?

Schizophrenia is thought to affect less than 1 percent of people in the United States. Worldwide, it affects some 24 million people.

The average age of onset varies between genders. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, men most commonly develop the illness in their late teens or early 20s, while women tend to develop it in their late 20s or early 30s.

What causes schizophrenia?

The causes of schizophrenia are complex, and often more than one factor is at play.

There appears to be a strong genetic component to schizophrenia. The lifetime risk of developing schizophrenia — under 1% for the general population — rises to about 6.5% in people who have first-degree relatives (like a parent or sibling) with the condition.

But the condition isn’t reliably passed down through families, and most close relatives of a person with schizophrenia won’t develop it themselves.

Animal research in 2016 indicates that the cause may be a combination of genetic predisposition and environmental factors. This is sometimes referred to as the “two-hit hypothesis.” The first “hit” is a person’s genetic predisposition, and the second is a traumatic experience later in life. In isolation, neither hit would trigger schizophrenia, but when combined, they can.

According to a 2017 review of research, being raised in a densely populated urban environment may increase someone’s chances of developing schizophrenia. But there are a number of complicating factors that make a causal link hard to confirm.

Some research has also reported that using certain drugs, particularly cannabis, may trigger schizophrenia. Again, cause and effect is hard to reliably determine, and the risk may be highest for people who already have a predisposition.

How is schizophrenia diagnosed?

There’s no definitive diagnostic test that can confirm schizophrenia. A healthcare professional may run a number of physical tests to rule out other possible causes of symptoms, such as neurological conditions or substance use disorders.

Once other potential causes have been excluded, a mental health professional can carry out an assessment. This may include questions about your:

  • symptoms
  • thoughts and perceptions
  • personal and family medical history

What are some common misconceptions about schizophrenia?

One of the most damaging myths about schizophrenia is that people with the condition are dangerous or violent. While there’s a slightly elevated risk of aggression in people with schizophrenia, research from 2019 suggests this may be due to substance use rather than the condition itself.

People with schizophrenia typically pose a far greater risk to themselves than anyone else.

The lifetime risk of suicide may be substantially higher for those with schizophrenia — around 10%, according to a 2019 study. A decreased life expectancy in people with schizophrenia is largely due to this elevated suicide risk.

Another misconception about schizophrenia is that people with the condition have multiple personalities. The word “schizophrenic” is sometimes colloquially used to mean volatile or highly changeable, which contributes to this confusion.

Experiencing “multiple personalities” is not a symptom of schizophrenia, but rather a completely separate condition — dissociative identity disorder.

There are a number of treatment options available for people living with schizophrenia. The most effective treatment tends to be an integrated, multi-pronged approach designed to treat symptoms and address underlying thought patterns.

When seeking treatment, you may need to try multiple strategies before finding what works best for you. It may take time and effort, but support from a treatment team can be essential in your journey to wellness.

Medication

Antipsychotic drugs are a common first-line treatment for schizophrenia. They can reduce or eliminate distressing symptoms, such as delusions and hallucinations, and reduce the likelihood of future episodes of psychosis.

Therapy

Psychotherapy can reduce stress and help to address negative thought patterns.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is an effective therapy option for schizophrenia. CBT tools can help create distance between a person and their thoughts, and may make symptoms like hallucinations and delusions more tolerable.

Schizophrenia is a complex condition that can pose challenges, both for those living with it and their loved ones.

But knowledge is power, and learning the answers to common questions about schizophrenia can often mean greater confidence and understanding.

With the right treatment, symptoms can be managed. Treatment plans for schizophrenia commonly involve a combination of:

  • medication
  • therapy
  • self-care and lifestyle changes

It is possible to live a full, positive life with schizophrenia. If you’re ready to get help but don’t know where to begin, you can take a look at Psych Central’s guide to seeking mental health support.

Learning about schizophrenia

If you’re curious to learn more about schizophrenia, here are additional resources: