What is Schizophrenia?

The public misconception of a schizophrenia sufferer as having a “split personality” has been pushed by Hollywood and novelists alike. Sufferers of this serious mental illness do not possess dual personalities, but the unfortunate stigma that is attached to schizophrenia and mental illness in general often precludes the general public having a thorough understanding of what this complex condition is all about.

Schizophrenia affects roughly one in every hundred people, so it is hardly a rare illness. This proportion is consistent around the world, occurring in similar ratios in all races and socio-economic groups. It is no respecter of status or education. It is a devastating illness which affects all aspects of the sufferer’s life, including their ability to hold down a job, and most importantly, form and maintain quality personal relationships.

Yet the most tragic feature of this illness is that symptoms generally first manifest during last adolescence and early adulthood, thus potentially creating a situation whereby the sufferer has little or no opportunity to successfully complete higher education, move upwards in the employment market, and sometimes, tragically even have a satisfactory love and family life. Schizophrenia can also appear in later life, even as late as the 60s, although these instances are rare. Some people may experience only one “episode” in their entire lives; however, the general pattern is of early onset and chronic disability.

Because schizophrenia interferes with the mental functioning of the sufferer, particularly in the area of thought and perception, the normally happy and carefree life of a successful young adult is denied to schizophrenia sufferers. Coupled with public fear and ignorance surrounding the condition, the daily life of a schizophrenic is not filled with the joy of living that many of us take for granted.

In addition, long term schizophrenia can also cause permanent changes to the core personality of the sufferer, hence it is important to detect and treat the illness as soon as symptoms begin to manifest. However, this is not as simple as it sounds. The onset of the illness may take many forms and thus it can be difficult for the parents and friends of the sufferer to fully understand what is happening to their child, family member, or friend. The illness may manifest rapidly over a period of a few weeks. Alternatively, the occurrence of the condition may be so slow that it remains undetected and undiagnosed for years. It is the latter situation that holds the most danger for the sufferer, as the earlier treatment is instigated, the better the prognosis for controlling the illness. At this point in time, there is no cure for schizophrenia.

Due to the insidious nature of the illness, and that it most commonly manifests during the so-called “difficult” teenage years, it is not uncommon for parents to disregard symptoms, believing their child is merely “going through a stage.” This is where education about all forms of mental illness is an important part of the parenting process.

In coming blogs, we will look at the symptoms and current treatment for this disturbing illness.

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