Shortly after my younger brother was born, my family uprooted our life in Chicago and moved back to sunny Southern California, where we stayed with family while my parents got their bearings. Around the same time, a relative was undergoing a similar transition, but the circumstances that led her to move into the house were very different.
Although I was just a kid, I still have vivid memories of that time in my life — and while I couldn't grasp the magnitude of her illness, I knew something wasn't right. I remember periods of yelling and erratic behaviour. During family gatherings, she'd often eat alone in a different room, or sometimes she'd skip the meal altogether. She avoided outings like restaurants, movies, and school functions. My family would explain that she was having a bad day and just needed some quiet time alone. But eventually, I learned that she had schizophrenia.
It's estimated that up to 0.64 percent of adults in the US suffer from schizophrenia, and while that number may seem relatively small, the diagnosis is life-altering for those affected. While the cause of schizophrenia is unknown, "research has pointed to both a combination and interaction of factors that can underlie this condition," Sonia Singh, PsyD, a clinical psychologist at Chiron Psychological Inc. in California who specialises in cognitive behavioural therapy, told POPSUGAR. Men are more likely to be diagnosed with schizophrenia in their late teens to early 20s, while women are more likely to experience an onset in their late 20s to early 30s.
How Symptoms of Schizophrenia Reveal Themselves
Unlike illnesses like post-traumatic stress disorder, schizophrenia isn't typically tied to a specific event. Dr. Singh explained that identifying early warning signs can be difficult, because more often than not, mild symptoms are present for months to years before the person experiences a psychotic episode. "We often see a pattern with individuals having genetic and biological vulnerabilities, and then a major life event or stressor — and in some cases, substance use — will trigger the disorder to surface," she said. For adolescents, the earliest signs may be changes in their mood, who they spend time with, or how they perform in school, which are typical behaviours in teens.
Identifying early warning signs can be difficult, because more often than not, mild symptoms are present for months to years before the person experiences a psychotic episode.
The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) divides symptoms of schizophrenia into three categories: positive, negative, and cognitive. Dr. Singh stressed that positive symptoms aren't any less severe than negative symptoms. Merely, "positive symptoms are more obvious and defined by the presence of something, whereas negative symptoms refer to where there is lack of, a deficiency, or decline in functioning," she explained. Positive symptoms can include hallucinations, delusions, and paranoia. In comparison, negative symptoms may include a lack of emotional expression, withdrawal from social activities, a decline in hygiene, and insomnia. Finally, those experiencing cognitive symptoms may have trouble focusing or processing information, which can affect the way they interact with others, as well as their decision making.
Based on our family history, my relative was likely genetically predisposed to mental illness. Just as Dr. Singh described, she then experienced significant stress that over time affected her relationships, decision making, and interest in doing things outside the house. Eventually, this progressed to more disruptive life choices, including drug use.
It wasn't long after she moved back home that she was in crisis, experiencing intrusive and paranoid thoughts, active delusions, and verbally aggressive behaviour. Fortunately, my father — with his background and training in mental illness and psychiatric crisis assessments — was able to provide professional guidance to help ensure her safety. He concluded that based on her dangerous behaviours, like wandering highways, she needed more immediate care. She eventually underwent an emergency psychiatric evaluation and was hospitalized.
Is It Possible to Recover From Schizophrenia?
Dr. Singh explained that, while someone who's been diagnosed with schizophrenia can undergo treatment to better manage their symptoms, this is a long-term condition that often continues to influence their thoughts, feelings, and behaviours. While my own family member was able to climb out of the trenches, her road to recovery has been far from easy, and even with immense support, it's taken her more than a decade to reach this point.
At times, she didn't take her medication regularly, which is common and can lead to a relapse in symptoms, including more severe paranoia and delusions. Approximately half of people with schizophrenia also have co-occurring mental or behavioural health disorders, like depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, or substance abuse, which can further delay their recovery. "Their symptoms and impairments can lead to other psychosocial complications. This could be something like sustaining a job," Dr. Singh told POPSUGAR — a challenge my relative continues to face.
I've seen firsthand that with sacrifice, love, and strength, some level of recovery is possible.
While early detection and intervention is key, putting together a treatment plan that includes a combination of medication, therapy, and social support is vital. Dr. Singh explained that certain circumstances like stress or significant changes to a person's environment can trigger symptoms and episodes and cause the disorder to progress further. For that reason, she recommends that families establish a daily routine and structure and adjust any previous expectations or demands.
For those battling schizophrenia and their loved ones, it can feel like there's no light at the end of the tunnel. But I've seen firsthand that with sacrifice, love, and strength, some level of recovery is possible. My relative now participates in family gatherings, holds a job, and, most recently, raised and trained a puppy — a difficult responsibility for anyone. She's been in this stage of recovery for about three years, and while that doesn't mean the disorder will ever not be a part of her life, it underlines the importance of finding treatment to help manage the symptoms. "With a combination of this and early diagnosis, many can live full and high-functioning lives," Dr. Singh said.
If you or someone you love are experiencing signs or symptoms of schizophrenia and are seeking mental health help, the National Alliance on Mental Illness has resources and a helpline (1-800-950-6264).