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The Minefield of Schizophrenia

Having a family member diagnosed with schizophrenia is distressing enough, but having to deal with the terminology and language of schizophrenia can be a nightmare in its own right. Here is a short glossary of terms that are frequently used by mental health professionals to describe the common characteristics of this puzzling and disturbing illness.

  • Acute episode
    The period of the illness when severe symptoms, including hallucinations and delusions, are experienced.
  • Affect
    A synonym for “mood” and refers to the outward expression of emotion. Persons suffering from schizophrenia may be described as having “flat effect” meaning that little or no emotion is registered during events which would normally elucidate crying, laughter, etc.
  • Atypical antipsychotic medications.
    Sounds worse that it really is and simply refers to the newer class of antipsychotic medications that we developed in the 1990s. They cause fewer side effects than more traditional drug treatments and some also address a wider array of symptoms.
  • Chemical imbalance
    Refers to the theory that schizophrenia (as well as many other psychological disturbances) is caused by an imbalance of neurotransmitters in the brain. Medications attempt to restore or at least mitigate these potential imbalances, resulting in improved mood and behavior.
  • Cognitive symptoms
    This term refers to the difficulty some sufferers experience in their ability to think clearly, and hence may have trouble problem solving (such as loading the address book of a mobile phone), or problems with memory, including retaining and recalling information.
  • Delusions
    Thoughts and beliefs that the sufferer is convinced are true but have no basis in reality.
  • Dopamine
    One of a number of neurotransmitters that act as chemical messengers in the brain. Abnormal levels of dopamine are linked to the development of schizophrenia.
  • Early warning signs
    Behaviors and symptoms indicative of a possible relapse. These include sleep disturbances, anxiety, agitation, and occasional delusional thoughts.
  • Electroconvulsive Therapy
    Also known as ECT, this is a medical treatment involving passing a controlled electrical current through the brain of the sufferer. Used to treat severe mental illness; in particular, depression which has not responded to other therapies. Side effects include memory loss.
  • Extrapyramidal effects
    Abnormal bodily movements (e.g. stiffness, twitching, trembling) that are a side effect of antipsychotic medication.
  • Hallucinations
    Imaginary, and often frightening, perceptions experienced during a psychotic episode that involve any of the five senses. The sufferer may see things that do not exist, or hear, taste or feel experiences that do not occur in reality.
  • Hearing voices
    A type of hallucination in which the sufferer hears voices, or hears his or her own thoughts actually spoken aloud, or other sounds that no-one else can hear. Often several voices may occur at once, causing acute stress for the sufferer. The voices are invariable negative in tone.
  • Maintenance therapy
    Treatment which is aimed at the reduction of relapse and may include regular hospital in-patient admissions in an attempt to reduce stresses experienced in coping with life.
  • Negative symptoms
    Refers to a loss or decrease in mental function, and includes withdrawal from others, lack of motivation, focusing on the self. Possibly a coping mechanism to deal with the presence of Positive Symptoms (see below).
  • Occupational Therapist
    Health professional who assists in improving the life skills of the sufferer, including the ability to handle daily requirements of an adult (such as payment of bills, dealing with tradespeople) as well as improving person-to-person interaction.
  • Positive Symptoms
    Active symptoms of psychosis that reflect a distortion of reality and include hallucinations and delusions.
  • Prodrome
    The term to describe a person who is exhibiting initial signs of the development of schizophrenia but has not yet displayed acute symptoms. Intervention at this stage of the illness is most beneficial for a positive long-term prognosis and quality of life.
  • Psychiatric nurse
    A specialist nurse trained in the treatment and care of psychiatric disorders.
  • Psychiatrist
    A doctor who specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of mental disorders.
  • Psychologist
    A mental health professional that specializes in the assessment and non-medical treatment of mental disorders.
  • Psychosis
    A mental phenomenon involving a loss of contact with reality.
  • Psychotherapy
    A non-specific term that generally refers to “talk-therapy” or counseling aimed at uncovering and understanding mental conditions in order to better treat them.
  • Relapse
    The reoccurrence of acute symptoms after a period of relative wellness.
  • Schizo-affective disorder
    A condition in which sufferers experience symptoms of both schizophrenia and mood disorder simultaneously, i.e. hallucinations and delusions may alternate with mania and depression.
  • Serotonin
    A neurotransmitter in the brain associated with mood regualtion.
  • Tardive dyskinesia
    Abnormal involuntary tics and movements, usually involving the hand and face muscles. Sufferers may roll their lips or constantly make repetitive movements of the finger tips. The phenomenon occurs as a result of long-term use of antipsychotic drugs and is often irreversible.
  • Typical antipsychotic drugs
    An older class of antipsychotic medication (as opposed to atypical antipsychotic medications, see previous blog). May also be referred to as conventional antipsychotics.


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