The American Psychiatric Association estimates that more than one percent of the population has schizophrenia. It’s a very low number, which seems to suggest that this condition isn’t an issue for most families in the United States. However, the families that are touched by this chronic brain disorder might never be the same again, as this condition can cause severe changes in the way a person thinks, talks, behaves, perceives the world and interacts with others.
Hallucinations: A Common Symptom
There are no brain scans or blood tests that can be used to diagnose schizophrenia. Instead, experts tend to look at the outward changes people manifest, and they try to determine whether or not those signals fit the profile that’s common for those who have schizophrenia. There are a number of changes these experts can look for, but often, signs that involve hallucinations are the first to appear, and they’re often the signs that family members find most alarming.
People with schizophrenia often see things that others can’t see, or they hear sounds that aren’t noticed by others. They might even claim to smell certain odors that aren’t available to others. To the person experiencing a hallucination, these experiences are totally real, and the fact that others can’t perceive the same things might be terrifying. The person might wonder if others are lying about their inability to notice these things, or the person might feel singled out or chosen, simply because this person is able to sense things that aren’t accessible by others.
Hallucinations like this are common, and they could involve almost any sense at all, but the National Institute of Mental Health suggests that hallucinations involving voices are the most common type experienced by people who have schizophrenia. These voices might be distant whispers that don’t impact the person directly, but they can also come in the form of commands or directives that instruct the person to say things, do things or behave in a specific manner.
In addition to experiencing hallucinations and feeling the need to act upon those hallucinations, people with schizophrenia may experience a cluster of other symptoms, such as:
- Mistaken beliefs that the person clings to even when others attempt to prove the falseness of the thought. People like this might believe that they’re famous, or they might believe that the radio is speaking directly to them.
- Thought disorders. People might speak in a tangled fashion or they might lose their train of thought regularly. They might also find it hard to focus and learn.
- Movement disorders. The absence of movement or repeated movements might show up regularly.
- Emotional disruptions. A lack of pleasure in socializing or a lack of ability to socialize, along with a monotone voice and few facial expressions, might be the outward signs shown here.
Some people have all of these symptoms, and they might have behavior that seems so erratic and strange that they are quick to come to the attention of their families. But there are some people who have only one or two of these symptoms, or they might have days in which they exhibit no symptoms at all.
On good days and bad, however, having schizophrenia can be incredibly disruptive. People like this often find it hard to succeed in the world, as they may not feel well enough to hold down a job or handle daily activities. Without treatment, they may rely on their families for almost everything, and even then, they may not be able to keep their behavior in check with the expectations of the society around them.
People who don’t get treatment for schizophrenia rarely snap out of the disease on their own, and they often don’t learn how to manage the disease without professional help. Instead, they tend to spiral into deeper and deeper dysfunction, and sometimes, they lose their lives to the disease. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests that one person in 10 with schizophrenia dies due to suicide. It’s a sad fact, but it demonstrates just how terrible it can be to live with an untreated form of this mental illness. People just feel desperate, and sometimes, they make poor choices as a result.
Turning to Substance Abuse
Since living with the disease can be so difficult and so challenging, it’s not surprising that some people with schizophrenia turn to addictive substances in order to keep their symptoms under control. A study in the journal Schizophrenia Research suggests that people aren’t choosing specific drugs that might help to ameliorate their particular set of symptoms, but rather, people who have this condition tend to take the drugs that are available in the community. They just want something to change, and addictive drugs seem like a good way to bring that change about.
On the surface, this might seem like a helpful technique. Taking a sedating drug might help to soothe a mind spun out on hallucinations and damaging thoughts, while taking in a stimulant might allow the person to focus on the thoughts and needs of others. But addictive drugs can also make schizophrenia symptoms so much worse. Hallucinogenic drugs can vault people into a persistent state of terror, augmenting the hallucinations they’re already prone to, while stimulant drugs might make people feel yet more paranoid and angry than they might already be. Addictions can also make people desperate for more drugs, allowing them to make decisions they might not consider while sober.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness suggests that 25 percent of people living with schizophrenia also have a substance abuse issue, and diagnosing them is sometimes difficult. People who abuse drugs can sometimes express symptoms that are similar to those seen in people with schizophrenia, while those who have schizophrenia can sometimes suppress their symptoms with drugs. It’s a challenging problem, but sometimes, treatment programs provide the best route for healing. By monitoring clients as they get sober, looking for symptoms that either improve or worsen, they can often separate those who have schizophrenia from those who have an uncomplicated form of substance abuse.
Schizophrenia is a chronic condition, meaning that it can be controlled without ever really being cured. Medications often play a role in the treatment process, as they can soothe chemical imbalances and provide the person with a form of serenity that’s long escaped them.
Common medications include:
These medications tend to work slowly, however, building up to a tolerable level inside the person’s body before they begin to impact behavior. They can also be fickle, working in some people while leaving others untouched. It’s not unusual, as a result, for people with schizophrenia to try multiple medications at differing doses over a long period of time before they find one that works.
A study in the journal Psychiatric Services suggests, however, that people who have substance abuse in addition to schizophrenia often don’t follow their treatment programs. They may not take medications at all, or they may take them only sporadically. Some people even abuse their medications. That’s why finding a formal treatment program for both schizophrenia and addiction is so important. Here, people have access to therapies that can assist with their mental health condition, and they can learn more about how the use and abuse of drugs tends to make their mental health more tenuous and hard to control. In the beginning, it might be difficult for people with schizophrenia to participate in therapy like this, as the mental illness might make learning hard, but as the medications take hold and the drugs fade away, the person’s mind may begin to awaken and a deeper sense of healing may take place.
At Black Bear Lodge, we provide comprehensive care for people who have both schizophrenia and substance abuse. Medications might play a role, but we can also provide intensive talk therapy, impulse control training and support group work that can allow the person to develop a deeper understanding and a strong sense of control. Our program is customizable too, so it might change over time, as the person’s needs change. If someone you know needs help, we’d like to talk with you. Please call.