Schizophrenia: information for young people

This webpage describes what schizophrenia is and how and why it might affect you. It also offers some practical advice about how to get help.

Disclaimer

This is information, not advice. Please read our disclaimer.

Schizophrenia is a serious illness affecting thoughts, feelings and behaviour. It is a type of psychosis which means an illness where people lose touch with reality - see our information on psychosis.
It is not common in younger children and usually begins in the late teenage years. About 1 in 100 people will suffer from schizophrenia over their lifetime.

This is still not fully understood. There are a number of reasons that can make a person more likely to develop schizophrenia or a similar psychotic illness:

  • There may be chemical imbalances in the brain.
  • Having a parent or close relative suffering from schizophrenia can increase the chance of developing similar illness.  
  • Stress or extreme life events (like someone close dying).
  • Using drugs like cannabis, LSD, ecstasy and speed (amphetamine).

When a person suffers from schizophrenia they may have symptoms described as ‘positive’ or ‘negative’. This does not mean 'good' or 'bad' ; it is more about 'doing' or 'not doing' things because of the illness.

Symptoms may develop suddenly, or creep in more gradually.

You may experience the symptoms described below.

These will feel totally real to you and can be distressing. It may seem that other people don't understand or aren't taking you seriously.

  • Unusual beliefs or delusions are very strong beliefs which are obviously untrue to others, but not to you. The may feel frightening or seem bizarre. For example, you might strongly believe that there is a plot to harm you or that you are being spied on through the TV or being taken over by aliens.
  • Muddled thinking or thought disorder is when it is difficult to think straight. Sometimes it may feel that others do not understand what you are trying to say. Your ideas may feel jumbled up, but is more than being muddled or confused.
  • Unusual experiences called hallucinations are when you see, hear, smell or feel something that isn’t really there, although you are convinced that it is. ‘Hearing voices’ is one of the most common hallucinations. This can be very frightening. It can make you believe that you are being ‘watched’ or ‘picked on’. Your friends or family may say that you are acting ‘strangely’. They may say that they hear you talking or laughing to ‘yourself’.

This does not mean they are ‘bad’ symptoms, just that they are about ‘not doing’ something. You may feel tired and unmotivated and not want to do normal things like:

  • go to school
  • do sports
  • see friends
  • get washed and dressed
  • hobbies you used to enjoy.
You may become frustrated and angry, especially towards your own friends or family. Some people try to smoke or drink alcohol to feel better, but this tends to make things worse. You may find the symptoms so distressing that you feel like harming yourself.

It is important that you seek help early. The earlier you are treated for psychosis, the quicker you can get back to your normal life.

Firstly, you could talk to your family, school nurse or GP. They may get you specialist help from a Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS) team or an Early Intervention Team or Service (EIS) - a specialist team for young people with psychosis.

With psychosis, you often don’t realise that you are unwell, which means the people around you might notice it first. If you become very unwell, you could need some time in hospital until your condition stabilises.

Medications called ‘antipsychotics’ are an important part of treatment. They may need to be taken for a long time in order to stay well. As with medication of any kind, there can be side-effects; the doctor you see will be able to advise you on these and what can be done to help.

If the psychosis is related to drug use or an underlying physical illness, you may need specific help and treatment to manage this.

Other forms of treatment are also important. You and your family will need help to understand more about your illness, how to manage it, and how to help prevent it coming back. You may need support to rebuild your confidence to continue with school, college or work.

Talking treatments can be helpful as well, but need to be in addition to medication.

Most young people with early help and treatment recover from their psychotic episode. If the illness is due to an underlying physical illness or the use of drugs, you might avoid having another episode by taking the right treatment and avoiding using drugs.

It is often difficult to know what the long-term effects of a psychotic episode will be, and a definite diagnosis may not be possible straight away.

It is important to continue with any treatment advised by your doctor and keep a balanced, healthy lifestyle.

Talking to others when you feel stressed can help in identifying problems early and getting the right treatment.

About this information

This information reflects the best available evidence at the time of writing. Our mental health information for young people was written in 2017 and will be reviewed in 2020.

©  March  2017 Royal College of Psychiatrists