What is schizophrenia?

Find out about the different forms of treatment for psychotic disorders, including medication, psychological therapies and self-help strategies.

This can help if:

  • you or someone you care for has been given a diagnosis of schizophrenia

  • you're worried that you might be suffering from schizophrenia and want to know more about it

  • you think that someone you know may have schizophrenia and want to know how to help them.

Bearded man wearing black beanie

What is schizophrenia?

'Schizophrenia' is a term used to describe a mental health condition that can impact on a person’s perception of reality and their behaviour. It affects about 1 in every 100 people in Australia. Schizophrenia is most often diagnosed by a psychiatrist (a doctor who specialises in understanding mental distress), who uses the diagnosis in deciding on the most effective treatment.

Signs and symptoms of schizophrenia

Like psychosis, people with schizophrenia can report the following symptoms:

  • unusual ideas or beliefs about yourself or the world, some of which may be frightening

  • hearing sounds or voices that other people can’t hear, or seeing images that others can’t see (known as ‘hallucinations’)

  • the feeling that others might be in control of your body or thoughts

  • trouble with thoughts getting jumbled, so that it may be hard to make sense of what people are saying or to express yourself clearly to other people

  • behaviour that seems odd or that other people might find strange.

In schizophrenia, these experiences last for more than a month – even for six months or longer. Other common symptoms of schizophrenia are problems with low mood and motivation, isolation from family and friends, and feeling cold or emotionless. People with schizophrenia may also have trouble with thoughts, concentration, speaking and memory. In more severe cases, they may have problems with movement.

What causes schizophrenia?

A lot of research has attempted to uncover the causes of schizophrenia. It’s not easy to determine the causes, because the symptoms can vary from one person to another. While genetic factors seem to play a role (i.e. you’re more likely to get schizophrenia if you have a close family member with the disorder), other factors such as trauma (frightening or life-threatening things happening to you), stress, problems at birth and significant drug use are also associated with schizophrenia.

What are the treatments for schizophrenia?

Medication: Schizophrenia is most commonly treated with anti-psychotic medications. These work by influencing the way the brain responds to certain chemicals such as dopamine. They can be very useful for reducing frightening experiences such as hearing or seeing things that others don’t hear or see, or having thoughts or ideas that lead to unusual behaviour.

Anti-psychotic medications can have side effects. If any of these are troubling you, it’s important to discuss this with your doctor so that an alternative medication can be offered or the dosage reduced. Medications may also be prescribed to assist with other problems, such as low mood or anxiety, or to help with sleep.

Psychological therapies: Psychotherapy for schizophrenia can assist with teaching skills and techniques for coping with stress and improving quality of life. Some therapies have been shown to be effective in helping people who hear voices. Psychological therapies for schizophrenia include cognitive behavioural therapy, acceptance and commitment therapy, and family therapy. Open Dialogue, a recently developed therapy that involves including family and social networks in treatment, has shown promising results in several countries.

Lifestyle changes: For many people, improving general health and reducing stress through activities such as art, music and exercise can support recovery. Avoiding drugs and alcohol and getting good sleep can also help.

Practical support: Assistance with goals to do with study or work can also reduce stress and improve quality of life for people with schizophrenia.

What can I do now?

  • If you think that you or a friend may be experiencing schizophrenia, it’s important to seek professional support. Organisations such as Headspace, or your local GP, can be a good place to start.

  • Find a doctor, psychiatrist or therapist you feel you can trust and that you get along well with. They will help you or your friend understand or make sense of worrying or strange thoughts and behaviours.

  • If some of these experiences are making you or a friend feel unsafe, or if you’re having thoughts about harming yourself or someone else, you can call 000 or go to your nearest emergency department to access immediate help.