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Understanding Schizophrenia: Unravelling the Mysteries


Schizophrenia is one of the most complex and often misunderstood mental disorders. Despite its portrayal in the media, there is a lot more to this condition than what meets the eye. This article aims to delve into the intricacies of schizophrenia, debunk common misconceptions, and provide insight into ongoing research and treatment options.

Definition and Overview

Schizophrenia is a chronic brain disorder that affects about 1 in 100 people in the UK at some point in their lives. It significantly alters how a person thinks, feels, and behaves. Those affected by schizophrenia may seem like they have lost touch with reality. This is, in fact, its defining feature, known clinically as “Psychosis”. It can be distressing for both individuals with schizophrenia and those around them.

Diagnostic Criteria

The latest diagnostic criteria divide the symptoms of schizophrenia into two categories: positive and negative. Positive symptoms are additional behaviours not seen in healthy individuals, such as hallucinations and delusions. Negative symptoms involve a lack of behaviours or abilities that are typically present, such as reduced motivation or emotional expression.

Differences in Presentation

The presentation of schizophrenia can vary widely among individuals. For example, a person might experience auditory hallucinations, such as hearing voices, while another might have visual hallucinations or delusions of grandeur, where they believe they are of significant importance or possess special powers.

What is Similar, but Not Schizophrenia

It is important to differentiate schizophrenia from other conditions, particularly dissociative identity disorder (DID), formerly known as multiple personality disorder. DID involves a person having two or more distinct identities or personality states, which is not a feature of schizophrenia.

Common Misconceptions

Multiple Personality Disorder

One of the most pervasive misconceptions is that schizophrenia involves multiple personalities. This confusion often stems from media portrayals but is inaccurate. Schizophrenia is characterised by a fragmented thinking process and a disconnection from reality, not the presence of multiple distinct personalities.

Violence and Schizophrenia

Likewise, there is a mistaken belief that people with schizophrenia are dangerous. The truth is that the vast majority of individuals with schizophrenia will never be violent. In fact, they are far more likely to be victims of violence rather than perpetrators. Studies show that people with schizophrenia are at a greater risk of being attacked or harmed than the general population. 

This misconception is often fueled by sensationalised media portrayals, which disproportionately highlight the rare instances of violence associated with the disorder. Understanding this helps in reducing the stigma and promoting a more compassionate view of those living with schizophrenia.

Real life Cases

One compelling personal story comes from Elyn Saks, a woman diagnosed with chronic schizophrenia who has managed to defy the grim prognosis given to her. Despite spending hundreds of days in psychiatric hospitals and facing severe psychotic episodes, Saks became a chaired professor at the University of Southern California’s Gould School of Law. 

Her journey highlights the potential for individuals with schizophrenia to lead fulfilling and successful lives, given the right treatment and support. Saks attributes her stability to excellent psychoanalytic therapy, effective medication, a strong support network of family and friends, and a highly supportive work environment. This underscores the critical importance of comprehensive care and social support in managing schizophrenia.

Saks’ experiences also shed light on the misconceptions and stigma surrounding schizophrenia. She vividly describes the terror of her psychotic episodes, such as believing she had caused mass deaths with her thoughts or fearing imminent nuclear explosions in her brain. These personal accounts illustrate the intense distress that can accompany the disorder. 

Saks advocates for non-coercive, compassionate treatment approaches, arguing against the use of force in psychiatric care. Her story serves as a powerful reminder that people with schizophrenia are more than their diagnosis—they are individuals with hopes, dreams, and the potential to achieve great things.

If you’d like to see her full TED talk, we would highly recommend it, you can find it here.

It’s also important to recognise that a much more bleak and unfortunate outcome can often be the reality for individuals with schizophrenia. Someone who is suffering from a particularly 

Hollywood Portrayal

Hollywood has contributed significantly to the misconceptions about schizophrenia. Movies and TV shows often dramatise the condition, focusing on the more sensational aspects like violence and unpredictability. This has led to a skewed public perception, overshadowing the everyday realities and struggles of those living with the disorder.

Causes of Schizophrenia

The exact cause of schizophrenia remains unknown and is likely to differ from person to person. Researchers believe that a combination of genetic, environmental, and psychosocial factors contribute to the development of the disorder. Understanding these factors can provide insight into the complex nature of schizophrenia.


Genetic factors play a significant role in the likelihood of developing schizophrenia. If someone in your family has schizophrenia, your risk of developing the condition increases to about one in ten. Studies on twins have shown that if one identical twin has schizophrenia, the other twin has a roughly 50% chance of developing it. Non-identical twins, who share a different genetic makeup, have a slightly higher risk than any other sibling if one of them has schizophrenia. This indicates a strong genetic component, although it is not the sole determinant.

Childhood Trauma and Stressful Life Events

Experiences of extreme stress during childhood, such as abuse or neglect, can increase the likelihood of developing schizophrenia. Similarly, significant stressful life events, like losing a loved one, becoming homeless, or being unemployed, can trigger the onset of the disorder. These stressors can exacerbate underlying vulnerabilities, leading to the development or worsening of symptoms.

Differences in Brain Chemistry

Research has shown that brain chemistry, particularly the functioning of neurotransmitters like dopamine, differs in individuals with schizophrenia. Antipsychotic medications, which help manage the symptoms of schizophrenia, work by correcting these chemical imbalances. However, the exact nature of these differences and how they contribute to schizophrenia is still being studied.

Brain Damage

Brain scans reveal that some people with schizophrenia have structural differences in their brains, although this is not universal. These differences may result from complications during birth, such as lack of oxygen, or viral infections during early pregnancy, which can impact brain development.

The Complicated Relationship with Drugs and Alcohol

Drug Use and Schizophrenia

The relationship between drug use and schizophrenia is complex. While it is clear that drug and alcohol use can exacerbate symptoms and interfere with treatment, the role of substances like cannabis in causing schizophrenia is still being studied. Heavy cannabis use, especially during the teenage years, has been associated with an increased risk of developing schizophrenia. Stronger forms of cannabis, such as skunk, may further elevate this risk. Amphetamines can induce psychotic symptoms that typically subside when the drug use stops, but they might trigger long-term illness in genetically predisposed individuals.

Self-Medication and Symptom Management

Some individuals may turn to drugs or alcohol to cope with the early symptoms of schizophrenia, such as anxiety or depression. However, this self-medication can worsen the condition and complicate treatment. Substance use can lead to heightened delusions and hallucinations, making the disorder more challenging to manage. Therefore, addressing drug and alcohol use is a critical component of treating schizophrenia effectively.

Summary of Causes

Schizophrenia is a multifaceted disorder influenced by genetic predisposition, environmental stressors, brain chemistry, and sometimes substance use. While we do not fully understand all the causes, recognising these factors can help in developing more effective treatments and support systems. Early intervention, comprehensive care, and addressing co-occurring substance use are essential steps in managing schizophrenia and improving the quality of life for those affected.

Ongoing Research

Research into schizophrenia is ongoing, with scientists exploring various aspects of the disorder to better understand its causes and develop more effective treatments. One prominent institution focusing on schizophrenia research is the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience (IoPPN) at King’s College London. Their research covers a broad range of areas, including genetic studies, neuroimaging, and the development of new therapeutic approaches.

Genetic Studies

Researchers at IoPPN are investigating the genetic factors that contribute to schizophrenia. By studying the DNA of individuals with the disorder and comparing it to those without, scientists hope to identify specific genes associated with an increased risk of schizophrenia. Understanding these genetic links can help in predicting who might be at risk and in developing targeted interventions.


Neuroimaging techniques, such as MRI and PET scans, are used to study the brain structures and functions of people with schizophrenia. These studies aim to identify abnormalities in brain regions and neurotransmitter systems involved in the disorder. Recent advancements have allowed researchers to map the brain more precisely, leading to better insights into how schizophrenia affects brain activity and connectivity.

New Therapeutic Approaches

In addition to genetic and neuroimaging studies, IoPPN is also involved in developing new therapeutic approaches. This includes researching new medications that can more effectively manage symptoms with fewer side effects. There is also a focus on non-pharmacological treatments, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), which has shown promise in helping individuals manage their symptoms and improve their quality of life.

Progress and Future Directions

Significant progress has been made in understanding the biological underpinnings of schizophrenia. For instance, researchers have identified several genetic variants associated with the disorder and have mapped key brain regions that are affected. These discoveries are paving the way for the development of more precise treatments.

Looking forward, the goal is to create personalised treatment plans based on an individual’s genetic profile and specific brain abnormalities. This personalised approach could lead to more effective management of schizophrenia, reducing the trial-and-error process often involved in finding the right treatment.

What to Do If You Suspect Someone May Be Schizophrenic

If you suspect someone you know may be suffering from schizophrenia, it is important not to attempt to diagnose them yourself. Encourage them to seek help from a mental health professional who can provide an accurate diagnosis and appropriate treatment. Early intervention can make a significant difference in managing the condition.

Please don’t think that just because someone has been “normal” all the time that you’ve known them that they can’t be schizophrenic. That’s one of the more insidious features of this disease, is its apparent suddenness. It can really take people by surprise, as with many diseases. Again, early intervention can make a significant difference in management of and recovery from schizophrenia. The outlook for individuals who are treated with the appropriate interventions at the right time is very good. Many will go on to live successful, fulfilling lives. 


Jennifer CosslettUnderstanding Schizophrenia: Unravelling the Mysteries