Approximately 1% of the world's population will develop schizophrenia at some point during their lifetime. This severe, disabling neurological disease is chronic, and there is no cure. Although it affects both men and women equally, men are usually diagnosed earlier, in their late teens or early twenties. The symptoms of Schizophrenia are complex, and the disorder can be difficult to diagnose, particularly in its early stages. Affected people often have terrifying psychotic symptoms such as hearing voices in their heads, or believing that others are controlling their thoughts, reading their minds, or plotting against them. These symptoms often leave them afraid and withdrawn, and can be incomprehensible or scary to other people because their speech patterns and behavior are disorganized and bizarre.
Diagnosing schizophrenia can be a complex and lengthy process, because the diagnosis is purely a clinical one―there is no blood test or physical exam that points to it. Doctors must first rule out other disorders or illnesses, because people can sometimes suffer serious mental symptoms and sometimes even psychosis as a result of underlying medical conditions. The first step is taking a complete medical history and physical examination. Laboratory tests are useful in ruling out other possible causes that indicate schizophrenia. Also, drugs that are commonly abused may give a person related symptoms, so urine or blood samples can be tested for those drugs. Another issue that complicates matters, is that it can be hard to tell one mental illness from another. The symptoms of schizophrenia can be very similar to the symptoms of bipolar disorder, manic-depressive disorder, or major depression.
The initial signs often appear as behavioral changes that may be confusing or shocking. A sudden onset of symptoms is referred to as being an 'acute phase' of the disorder. Psychosis is a common symptom, where the patient is mentally impaired by hallucinations, delusions, and the inability to discern what is real and what is not. Less obvious symptoms may precede, occur along with, or follow severe psychotic symptoms. Some people have a single episode of psychosis, but others have them many times throughout their lives, yet they lead fairly normal lives between episodes. However, an affected person usually does not recover complete normal functioning, and often requires long-term medical treatment, usually requiring medication in order to control the symptoms.
There are treatments that can relieve many of the symptoms, but very few patients actually recover completely, and most continue to suffer symptoms of some sort throughout their lives. Suicide is one danger; approximately 10% of all patients commit suicide, especially younger males. Medications and other treatments can control the symptoms when used regularly and as prescribed, but there are persistent consequences that can be very troubling―lost opportunities, medication side effects, social stigmas, and residual symptoms that never go away completely.
However, research is continuing to unravel the complex issues that cause this disease. Scientists are drawing upon approaches used to study molecular genetics and the study of populations to learn more about schizophrenia, and new methods of imaging the structure and functioning of the brain seem to hold promise for gaining new insights.