Can Schizophrenia Be Prevented?
Schizophrenia is a frequently misunderstood disorder, with portrayals in popular media often contributing to the misconceptions. For those who’ve watched a loved one struggle with this mental health issue, it can be very painful. Adding to the stress is the concern that they might develop schizophrenia as well. What role does genetics play in the development of schizophrenia, and are there specific things you can do to prevent the onset of the disorder when a family history is present?
Before we can dive into preventing or treating schizophrenia, it’s important to first understand what schizophrenia is and what causes it.
Schizophrenia is a chronic, severe mental disorder that affects how a person thinks, feels, and behaves, according to the National Institute for Mental Health (NIMH). As a result, people with schizophrenia may seem like they have lost touch with reality. The worldwide rate of schizophrenia is generally thought to be approximately 1%, with some variation noted across studies and populations, according to the Substance Abuse Mental Health Services Association (SAMHSA).
Symptoms usually emerge between the ages of 16 and 30, although there have been rare cases where children have developed schizophrenia. When early onset does occur, it’s more common in males, but as age increases, the rate of males to females with schizophrenia levels out.
While schizophrenia is not as common as other mental disorders, it can be disabling. Just look at these sobering statistics from SAMHSA:
- Schizophrenia is one of the top 15 leading causes of disability worldwide.
- Individuals with schizophrenia have an increased risk of premature mortality compared to the general population.
- Co-occurring medical conditions, such as heart disease, liver disease, and diabetes, contribute to the higher premature mortality rate among individuals with schizophrenia.
- An estimated 4.9% of people with schizophrenia die by suicide, a rate that is far greater than the general population, with the highest risk in the early stages of illness.
- Approximately half of individuals with schizophrenia have co-occurring mental and/or behavioral health disorders.
- Financial costs associated with schizophrenia are disproportionately high relative to other chronic mental and physical health conditions, reflecting both “direct” costs of health care as well as “indirect” costs of lost productivity, criminal justice involvement, social service needs, and other factors beyond health care.
Are You At Risk?
If a family member has schizophrenia, it’s probably not comforting to hear that the disorder can run in families and that a genetic connection can make you more prone to develop schizophrenia yourself. But genetics are not destiny. Just because someone may be predisposed to a condition, that doesn’t mean they will develop that disorder. There are several factors that contribute to the risk of developing schizophrenia.
So where does this disorder fall in the “nature vs. nurture” debate? Are you born with a predisposition or are outside factors to blame? There are many people who have schizophrenia who don’t have a family member with the disorder. At the same time, many people with one or more family members with the disorder do not go on to develop it themselves. Scientists believe that both interactions between genes and aspects of the individual’s environment are necessary for schizophrenia to develop. So, it turns out it is nature and nurture.
There are no easy answers when trying to get to the root of schizophrenia. Science seems to show that there isn’t a single gene responsible for the disorder. Instead, there are many different genes that may increase the risk of schizophrenia. While there is currently no scientific way to predict who will develop schizophrenia, knowledge is power, and learning about the factors that can contribute to schizophrenia makes you better prepared. These include exposure to viruses, malnutrition before birth, problems during birth, and psychosocial factors.
Scientists also believe that an imbalance in the complex, interrelated chemical reactions of the brain involving the neurotransmitters dopamine and glutamate, and possibly others, plays a role in schizophrenia. There are also experts who think problems during brain development before birth may lead to faulty connections. Then, during puberty, the brain undergoes major changes which may trigger psychotic symptoms in people who are vulnerable due to geneticCallouts or brain differences.
An Ounce of Prevention
While the exact mechanisms that underlie the development of schizophrenia are just starting to be understood, research does suggest there are actions you can take to lower the risk of schizophrenia and other mental illnesses, according to schizophrenia.com, a site dedicated to providing information, support, and education about schizophrenia.
Methods of prevention:
- Make an effort to maintain deep friendships
- Avoid social isolation
- Avoid using street drugs
- Moderate your alcohol use
- Learn to manage stress and anxiety
- Get early screenings of there is a family history of mental health disorders
- Seek professional help for behavioral health issues
Early Warning Signs: What to Look For
There are three different categories when it comes to symptoms of schizophrenia. They are divided into positive, negative, and cognitive. Positive symptoms would include any psychotic behaviors not generally seen in healthy people, from hallucinations and delusions to movement and thought disorders. Is someone experiencing an unusual or dysfunctional way of thinking or do they have agitated body movements? Those would constitute positive symptoms of schizophrenia.
By contrast, negative symptoms associated with disruptions to normal emotions and behaviors. This can include a flat affect, reduced feelings of pleasure in everyday life, difficulty beginning and sustaining activities, and reduced speaking. Then there are the cognitive symptoms, which can range from subtle to severe and may include poor executive functioning, difficulty focusing, and problems with working memory.
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How to Provide Support
Caring for and supporting a loved one with schizophrenia can be difficult, but it is important to remember that schizophrenia is a biological illness.
Here are some ways you can help your loved one:
- Get them treatment and encourage them to stay in treatment
- Remember that their beliefs or hallucinations seem very real to them
- Tell them that you acknowledge that everyone has the right to see things their own way
- Be respectful, supportive, and kind without tolerating dangerous or inappropriate behavior
- Check to see if there are any support groups in your area
Treatment Options for Schizophrenia
Despite all the research, the specific causes of schizophrenia are still somewhat of a mystery, so current treatment is focused on lessening or eliminating the symptoms of the disease. There are a variety of treatment methods available for schizophrenia, from medication to therapy and family involvement. Antipsychotic medications are usually taken daily in pill or liquid form, while others are administered as an injection given once or twice a month. Side effects are a common concern, but most go away after a few days. It’s important to work with your doctor to find the best medication or combination of meds in the right dosage.
Once you or your loved one finds a medication that works, psychosocial treatments can provide the necessary coping skills to address the everyday challenges, according to NIMH. Those dealing with this disorder can work, attend school, and pursue other life goals with the right tools. And studies have shown that those who participate in regular psychosocial treatment are less likely to relapse or be hospitalized.
Residential treatment can provide a safe place for those suffering from schizophrenia to learn life skills and coping mechanisms for dealing with their disorder as well as find the right medications to best manage symptoms. Coordinated specialty care (CSC) is a treatment model that integrates medication, psychosocial therapies, case management, family involvement, and supported education and employment services, all aimed at reducing symptoms and improving quality of life.
In addition to treating the patient, residential care can provide resources for family members and loved ones. A mental disorder diagnosis can throw the entire family off balance. When someone you care about is in treatment, it can be all-consuming, but self-care is critical—both for the person getting treatment and their loved ones.
If you’re concerned about a loved one and believe they may need residential care, we can help. BrightQuest offers long-term treatment for people struggling with complex mental health illnesses and co-occurring disorders. Contact us to learn more about our renowned program and how we can help you or your loved one start the journey toward recovery.