What Is Schizophrenia?

Schizophrenia is one of the most misunderstood mental illnesses. Find out about the schizophrenia symptoms and treatments.

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Aug 22, 2022 UPDATED
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Schizophrenia is a mental disorder in which sufferers typically experience psychosis, a disconnect between their perceived reality and actual events.

People with schizophrenia can experience hallucinations or delusions, or interact with people who aren’t actually there.

According to the American Psychiatric Association's (APA) Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), schizophrenia is a chronic mental disorder.

With a history of stigma, schizophrenia is one of the more misunderstood mental illnesses. That said, there are several known treatments for schizophrenia that have been proven to be quite effective. 

How common is schizophrenia?

Prior to 2017, the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) reported the prevalence rate of schizophrenia in U.S. adults as 1.1%. Essentially 11 people out of 1,000 would be diagnosed with the disorder.

In November 2017, NIMH updated its website to report that the prevalence of schizophrenia is now 0.3%, or 3 cases in 1,000 adults. 

The nonprofit Treatment Advocacy Center still uses the prevalence rate of 1.1% of American adults with schizophrenia, however as its director of research Elizabeth Sinclair Hancq pointed out in 2021, it is likely that this is an underestimate.

A Monarch by SimplePractice infographic that states that 1.1% of the U.S. population has been diagnosed with schizophrenia.

Causes of schizophrenia

Schizophrenia affects all races and genders.

Many, though not all, people with schizophrenia have been found to have very particular brain structures, and so it has been posited that brain structure can have an effect on a person’s susceptibility to schizophrenia. Schizophrenia has been observed to be genetic, though there is no one “schizophrenia gene,” and a family history of the disease does not necessarily mean a person will develop the illness.

Schizophrenia has been observed to be genetic, though there is no one “schizophrenia gene,” and a family history of the disease does not necessarily mean a person will develop the illness.

The disease usually first presents in young adulthood—men in their early 20s and women in their late 20s. Researchers aren’t exactly sure why this is the case, but it could have something to do with the unique stressors that occur at these specific ages. These stressors are known as “triggers” of a schizophrenic episode.

A Monarch by SimplePractice infographic that states the average age of schizophrenia onset for men and women.

What triggers schizophrenia?

Schizophrenia triggers vary from person to person but include stressful or traumatic life events (for example, the death of a loved one, the end of a relationship) or the abuse of drugs and alcohol. 

How is schizophrenia treated? Can schizophrenia be cured? 

While there is no known cure for schizophrenia, treatment can help many sufferers lead rewarding and productive lives.

Treatment includes both medication and a range of therapy options, including talk therapy, CBT, and other forms of counseling. 

Given that for many people schizophrenia presents itself in young adulthood and can subsequently interfere with educational and career pursuits, many people with schizophrenia benefit from rehabilitation treatment to help develop life-management skills and/or vocational education to pursue their own independent career path. 

Family support can be critical to helping people with schizophrenia maintain treatment, and family members caring for those with schizophrenia should also seek support themselves to maintain their own physical health and well-being.

Organizations such as the Schizophrenia and Related Disorders Alliance of America (SARDAA), Mental Health America (MHA), and the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) offer resources and support to individuals with schizophrenia and other mental illnesses and their families.

Why is schizophrenia so misunderstood? 

For decades, schizophrenia has been used as a shorthand for “crazy.”

In popular culture like the films One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) and A Beautiful Mind (2001), schizophrenia is portrayed as a disease of the mad and the madly brilliant.

This negative and detrimental connotation of the illness has made it difficult for those who suffer from schizophrenia symptoms to acknowledge the potential for the disease. And that means they often don’t seek help.

Schizophrenia is not multiple personality disorder, which is now known as dissociative identity disorder (DID).

Nor is it a split-personality disorder.

While delusional thoughts, hallucinations (either visual or auditory), and disorganized or incoherent speech are common symptoms of schizophrenia, they do not necessarily present in everyone with the disorder.

Schizophrenia is not multiple personality disorder, nor is it a split-personality disorder.

Nor do these symptoms necessarily prevent people with schizophrenia from living productive, fulfilling lives. 

Before a schizophrenia diagnosis can be made and effective treatment plan created, a psychiatrist will conduct tests to rule out other medical or neurological illnesses, or substance misuse, which can all present symptoms similar to those of schizophrenia.

Both genetic and environmental factors are also considered, as causes for schizophrenia are linked to family history as well as environmental stressors. 

A Monarch by SimplePractice illustration of a white man in a black baseball cap, white t-shirt, blue jeans, and black shoes walking next to a Black woman in a long orange dress and white shoes.

Find mental health support for schizophrenia

The Monarch Directory by SimplePractice can help you find licensed mental health professionals, including psychologists, who can help support treatment for schizophrenia. You can view mental health professionals near you who specialize in treating clients with schizophrenia.

How can I help a friend or family member with schizophrenia? 

One of the most important things to practice for any person in your life who may be affected by schizophrenia—or any physical or mental illness, for that matter—is compassion.

Any diagnosis can be scary for the person with the illness, as well as for their loved ones—especially when the illness carries with it a lot of negative cultural connotations and misunderstanding. 

Family support can be critical to helping people with schizophrenia maintain treatment.

Reading about and trying to understand the disease is one way of showing care.

Also important is listening, checking in with the friend or family member, and inviting them to engage in usual activities together.

Whatever the specific diagnosis, the isolation, loneliness, and low self-image or sense of failure that comes with any news of mental illness are very real, and genuine compassion and care can go a long way in helping others to feel less alone and to stick to a treatment plan. 

Like most illnesses, avoiding or stopping treatment for schizophrenia can worsen the onset and severity of symptoms of the disorder. Consequently, consistency of care and structured habits around it—as well as routine activities with friends and family—are beneficial for long-term health and happiness. 

READ NEXT: The 5 Most Misunderstood Mental Disorders

Need to find mental health support you? Check out the Monarch Directory by SimplePractice to find licensed mental health professionals with availability and online booking.

Article originally published Mar 9, 2022. Updated Aug 22, 2022.
  1. American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Washington, DC: Publisher. Psychiatry.org. (2020). What Is schizophrenia? Retrieved from: https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/schizophrenia/what-is-schizophrenia

  2. SARDAA. (2020). About schizophrenia. Retrieved from https://sardaa.org/resources/about-schizophrenia/

  3. Ochoa, S., Usall, J., Cobo, J., Labad, X., & Kulkarni, J. (2012). Gender differences in schizophrenia and first-episode psychosis: A comprehensive literature review. Schizophrenia Research and Treatment, 2012, 1–9. https://doi.org/10.1155/2012/916198

  4. NHS Choices. (2020). Causes-Schizophrenia. Retrieved from https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/schizophrenia/causes/

  5. What Is Schizophrenia? (2020). Retrieved from Psychiatry.org website: https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/schizophrenia/what-is-schizophrenia

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