About Schizophrenia

About Schizophrenia

Schizophrenia is a syndrome, a collection of symptoms and signs that go together and continue over time. It is not a single disease entity like diabetes, lung cancer or tuberculosis. It very likely represents a group of psychiatric conditions that, at present, cannot be clearly distinguished from each other and appear to overlap with other psychiatric conditions and with normality. In other words, it has “fuzzy boundaries” which make it very difficult to define and study. While we sometimes speak of schizophrenia as if it were a clearly defined disease, it is important to remember that this is not the case and that we are merely using a convenient short-hand language.

There are likely to be many causal factors involved, including genetic vulnerabilities and important environmental and social influences. It is likely that there are interactions between genetic and environmental/social factors that produce complex changes in the brain and psychological processes. By learning more about these changes we may be able to better understand the causes of schizophrenia and devise new treatments.

A recent national epidemiological survey conducted in Australia indicates that there is a wide range of outcomes in people with schizophrenia, varying from minimal or no disability across the spectrum to severe, continuous illness with major disability. Most fall in the middle of the spectrum where it is possible to lead satisfying lives in the presence of partial recovery with treatment.

The Key Facts

Schizophrenia involves alterations in brain structure and function. Research suggests that schizophrenia may be a developmental disorder resulting from alterations in the maturation of the nervous system.

  • In Australia, approximately 1 in 100 people have or will develop schizophrenia during their lifetime and it is usually life-long. Rates of schizophrenia are very similar from country to country but with small regional variations.
  • Schizophrenia ranks among the top 10 causes of disability in developed countries worldwide. Onset is typically between the ages of 15 and 30.
  • Many of those affected do not receive medical help in the early stages and as a result may not access appropriate treatment for two or more years from the first onset of symptoms.
  • Schizophrenia is characterised by a retreat from reality with delusion formation, hallucinations, emotional dysregulation and disorganised behaviour. There are also more subtle signs that develop over time – slow decline in mental function and social relationships leading to personality change, social isolation and occupational disability.
  • It is a major cause of suicide – up to 50 percent of people with schizophrenia attempt suicide, 5 percent complete suicide. People with schizophrenia have 2.5 times the death rate of the general population, and life expectancy is reduced by up to 18 years.
  • Genetic factors are involved in the causes of schizophrenia. If one of a pair of identical twins has schizophrenia, the likelihood of the other twin also developing the illness is about 50%. This suggests that while genetic factors are important, there is clearly scope for environmental and social factors to contribute as well.
  • In addition to the profound emotional cost to families, schizophrenia costs the Australian community approximately $2.6 billion per annum in both direct health costs and loss of productivity; 85 percent of sufferers receive welfare benefits.

There is, as yet, no known cause or cure, but many people with schizophrenia are able to live stable and productive lives with the help of regular medication, psychosocial interventions and support.

Page last updated: 15:16  26 June 2013