What is schizophrenia?

What is schizophrenia?

Page last updated: May 2007

A person with schizophrenia typically experiences changes in behaviour and perception, and disordered thinking that can distort their sense of reality. This is referred to as psychosis.

Schizophrenia is a mental illness with much stigma and misinformation associated with it. This often increases the distress to the person and his/her family.

Schizophrenia usually first appears when people are aged between 15 and 25 years, although it can appear later in life. The prevalence of schizophrenia is about one percent in the general population.

About one third of people with schizophrenia experience only one or a few brief episodes in their lives. For others, it may remain a recurrent or lifelong health condition.

The onset of illness may be rapid, with acute symptoms developing over several weeks, or it may be slow, developing over months or even years.

During onset, the person often withdraws from others, gets depressed and anxious, and develops unusual ideas or extreme fears. Noticing these early signs is important for early access to treatment.

Early recognition and effective early treatment is vital to the future wellbeing of people with schizophrenia.

Many misunderstandings surround schizophrenia, which contribute to the stigma, isolation and discrimination that can be experienced by people with schizophrenia and their families and carers.

A common myth is that people with schizophrenia are dangerous. They are seldom dangerous, especially when receiving appropriate treatment and support. Very occasionally, a small minority of people with schizophrenia may become aggressive during an acute untreated episode of psychosis, because of their fears or delusions. Most often the aggressive behaviour is directed toward the self, and the risk of suicide can be high.

Schizophrenia is often mistakenly referred to as a 'split personality'. This is not true; people with schizophrenia may have delusions and a distorted sense of reality, but they do not have multiple personalities.

People with schizophrenia show a normal range of intelligence ability, and do not have a mental disability, although acute symptoms of psychosis may interfere with their ability to think during an acute episode.