Overview of Schizophrenia

Schizophrenia is probably the most debilitating and unforgiving of all the mental health disorders. It keeps people from functioning at school, at work, in relationships, and in society. Schizophrenia is a disorder characterized primarily by psychotic symptoms, including the following:

  • Hallucinations–false visual, auditory, or tactile perceptions without a realistic basis or external cause
  • Delusions–exaggerated or distorted thoughts and perceptions of self and others; or unrealistic belief in ability, knowledge, or ideas
  • Disorganized thought–including nonsensical associations and disorganized speech
  • Disorganized behavior–including aggressiveness and wild gestures
  • Difficulty showing or expressing emotion–including flattened behavior (rigid posture, inability to move or talk, unresponsiveness)

Severe psychosis can last for more than 6 months. The course of the disease is different for men and women, and schizophrenia can occur as early as 15 years of age. Because it tends to be a chronically pervasive disease, an early onset implies lifelong debilitating disease.

Schizophrenia affects about 1 percent of the population worldwide, with incidence of the disorder slightly lower in some countries and slightly higher in others. In the United States alone, about 2.4 million people suffer from schizophrenia, the majority of whom live in socioeconomically disadvantaged rural areas.

The impact of schizophrenia on family, workforce, and the economy is devastating. Schizophrenic patients occupy 10 percent of hospital beds in the United States and costs the country an estimated 2 percent of its gross national product in missed work, public assistance, and treatment costs. Schizophrenia affects more people than Alzheimer's disease, diabetes, or multiple sclerosis.

Schizophrenia does not mean "split personality," as popular media too often describe it. Rather, it is a complex, biologically based mental disorder caused by genetics, brain physiology, and other risk factors. Its course is probably influenced by a person's environment, as well as biological makeup. Although it can be incapacitating and is typically incurable, it is treatable with continual medication.

Publication Review By: Stanley J. Swierzewski, III, M.D.

Published: 31 Jan 2001

Last Modified: 02 Oct 2015