Schizophrenia is a disorder characterized by severely disorganized thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. The word “schizophrenia” means “split mind,” and originally the disorder was given this name to call attention to the divided thought processes of the people affected by it.
Unfortunately, over the years, many people have confused schizophrenia with dissociative identity disorder, a mental health problem in which people report having multiple personalities. This is not accurate; people with schizophrenia don’t have multiple personalities. Rather, they suffer from a collection of different kinds of problems that make it very difficult to function at home, at work, and in other social situations. And yet, despite these various problems with their thought processes, many people with schizophrenia are of average or above average intelligence.
Most people suffering with schizophrenia experience some kind of hallucination. Hallucinations are visual, auditory, or other sensory events that only the person can perceive. Hallucinations might include seeing people or things that aren’t really there, hearing voices that others can’t hear, or smelling scents that don’t really exist. These hallucinations might happen frequently, and they are often very disturbing.
Another common experience in schizophrenia is delusional thinking. A delusion is a strongly held but mistaken, belief. For example, some people with schizophrenia have delusions of reference, which means they mistakenly think that common experiences have a special meaning for them. For example, a man might think that the television newscaster is talking directly to him, or a woman might believe that someone is sending her secret messages in the newspaper. Other people with schizophrenia have delusions of persecution, meaning they think that other people are looking to do them harm. For example, a woman might think she’s being followed by a secret government organization, or a man might think that someone other than himself is controlling his thoughts.
Most likely, the person struggling with schizophrenia also suffers from other serious problems with his or her thought processes. Typically, problems occur when these people try to think of words they want to use, try to remember information, or try to maintain their focus on something. These problems with thought processes often lead to problems in speaking, which are noticed by other people. The person might have difficulty focusing on one topic and instead switch from one subject to another very quickly and frequently. This often makes people with schizophrenia difficult to understand.
Most people with schizophrenia also suffer from some kind of severe behavior difficulty. This could mean having problems doing regular daily activities, like eating and bathing. Or perhaps the person can’t control his or her impulses and as a result behaves in unpredictable and inappropriate ways, like screaming at people in public. In more extreme cases of schizophrenia, a person might be unable to move and appear to be rigid, like a statue; or, conversely, the person might engage in some type of strange but constant motion. This is called catatonia.
Another problem commonly associated with schizophrenia is difficulties interacting with others. Some people with schizophrenia appear to have an expressionless face and often seem unable to display their emotions, while others display emotions that are quite different from what would be expected, like laughing during a serious conversation. Other common problems include an inability to participate in social or work activities, or to enjoy activities that provided entertainment before the person became ill with the disorder.
A diagnosis of schizophrenia would be made after a person had been struggling with these problems for a period of at least six months. Symptoms that last less than six months are more accurately diagnosed as schizophreniform disorder. In addition, some people suffer with a combination of schizophrenic and depressive symptoms known as schizoaffective disorder. In addition to the above symptoms, they also experience symptoms common to depressive episodes.
In a study that tried to identify the early warning signs of schizophrenia, certain problems were frequently reported by people who later developed the disorder.6 These early problems included hallucinations, becoming exceptionally suspicious of others, experiencing changes in sleep patterns, feeling very anxious, experiencing problems with thinking, becoming excessively angry, developing delusions, and experiencing depression. In additional studies, the sudden development of very strange behaviors also preceded onset of schizophrenia. However, this development by itself isn’t enough to predict the onset of the disorder.