Schizophrenia, a disease of the brain, is one of the most disabling and emotionally devastating illnesses known to man. However, because it has been misunderstood for so long, it has received relatively little attention and its victims have been undeservingly stigmatized. Schizophrenia is not a split personality, a rare and very different disorder. Like cancer and diabetes, schizophrenia has a biological basis. Schizophrenia is, in fact, a relatively common disease, with an estimated 2.5 million of the U.S. population being diagnosed with it over the course of their lives. While there is no known cure for schizophrenia, it is a very treatable disease. Most of those afflicted by schizophrenia respond to drug therapy, and many are able to lead productive and fulfilling lives.
Schizophrenia is characterized by a set of distinctive and predictable symptoms. The symptoms that are most commonly associated with the disease are called positive symptoms, which denote the presence of grossly abnormal behavior. These include thought disorder, delusions, and hallucinations. Thought disorder is the diminished ability to think clearly and logically. Often it is manifested by disconnected and irrational language that renders the person with schizophrenia incapable of participating in conversation, contributing to his alienation from his family, friends, and society. Delusions are common among individuals with schizophrenia.
Hospitalization is often necessary in cases of acute schizophrenia. This ensures the safety of the affected person, while allowing for observation by trained mental health professionals to determine whether schizophrenia is the appropriate diagnosis. Hospitalization also allows for the initiation of medication under close supervision. Antipsychotic drugs can dramatically improve the functioning of people with schizophrenia. Once the most troubling symptoms are controlled by medication, the person often does not require hospitalization. Depending on the seriousness of the disease, the person may utilize day programs, rehabilitation facilities, and be treated in an outpatient setting. This allows the psychiatrist to adjust medication dosages as necessary over the course of the disease. The person may also need assistance in readjusting to society once his or her symptoms are controlled. Supportive counseling or psychotherapy may be appropriate for these individuals as a source of friendship, encouragement, and practical advice during this process.
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While schizophrenia can affect anyone at any point in life, it is somewhat more common in those persons who are genetically predisposed to the disease. The first psychotic episode generally occurs in late adolescence or early adulthood.