This short video explores what it is to have schizophrenia, what
causes it and how to help yourself and others with this
information. The film was produced by the RCPsych Public Engagement
Committee in conjunction with Damn Fine Media.
About this leaflet
This leaflet may be helpful if:
- you have a diagnosis of
- you think you might have
- you know someone with this
- you just want to know more
- what it is like to have
- what causes it
- what can help
- how to help yourself
- information for
‘Schizophrenia’ is a word that makes many
people uneasy. The media regularly uses it – inaccurately and
unfairly – to describe violence and disturbance. It is
one of several disorders called 'psychoses' - and this word is also
used to describe violence and disturbance.
So, it's hardly surprising that many people
with this diagnosis find it unhelpful. It can feel as though
society has judged you to be violent and out of control – when you
clearly are not.
We still use the word 'schizophrenia'
because a better one has not been agreed for the pattern of
symptoms and behaviours described here. Even if you don’t find the
word helpful, we hope that the information in this leaflet can
still be useful. Many of the symptoms that are part of
schizophrenia will also occur in other disorders - they tend to be
called 'psychotic' symptoms.
What is schizophrenia?
A disorder of the mind that affects how
you think, feel and behave. Its symptoms are described
as ‘positive’ or ‘negative’.
These are unusual experiences. Many people
have them from time to time and they need not be a problem. In
schizophrenia, they tend to be much more intense, troublesome,
pre-occupying and distressing.
A hallucination happens when you hear, smell,
feel or see something - but it isn't caused by anything
(or anybody) around you. The commonest one is hearing voices.
What do voices sound like?
They sound utterly real. They usually seem to
be coming from outside you, although other people can’t hear them.
You may hear them coming from different places, or they may seem to
come from a particular place or thing. Voices can talk to you
directly or talk to each other about you – it can be like
over-hearing a conversation. They can be pleasant, but are often
rude, critical, abusive or just plain irritating.
How do people
react to them?
You may try to ignore them, talk back to them
– or even shout back at them if they are particularly loud or
irritating. You may feel that you have to do what they tell you,
even if you know you shouldn't. You may wonder if they are they
coming from hidden microphones, from loudspeakers, or the spirit
Where do they come from?
Voices are not imaginary – you really do hear
them - but they are created by the mind. Scans have shown that the
part of the brain that 'lights up' when you hear voices is the
same area that is active when you talk, or form words in your mind.
The brain seems to mistake some of your thoughts, or ‘inner
speech’, for voices coming from outside you.
Do other people
You can also hear voices in severe
depression. They tend to be simpler, repeating the same
negative or critical word or phrase over and over again.
You can also hear voices which don't
interfere with your life. They may be pleasant, or not very loud,
or only happen from time to time. These voices do not usually call
for any kind of treatment.
Other kinds of
You may see things that aren't there, or may
smell or taste things that aren't there. Some people have
uncomfortable or painful feelings in their body, or feelings of
being touched or hit.
A delusion happens when you believe something
– and are completely sure of it – while other people think you have
misunderstood what is happening. It's as though you see
things in a completely different way from everyone else. You
have no doubts, but other people see your belief as mistaken,
unrealistic or strange. If you do try to talk about your ideas with
someone, your reasons don’t make sense to them, or you can’t
explain – you ‘just know’. It's an idea, or set of ideas, that
can't be explained as part of your culture, background or
How does it
- It may suddenly dawn on you
that at last you really understand what is going on. This may
follow weeks or months when you have felt that there has been
something wrong, but that you couldn’t work out what it was.
- A delusional idea can be a
way of explaining hallucinations. If you hear voices that talk
about you, you may explain it to yourself with the idea that a
government agency is tracking you.
These are ideas that make you feel persecuted
or harassed. They may be:
- unusual – it feels as though
MI5 or the government is spying on you. You may think
that neighbours are influencing you with special powers or
- everyday - you start to
believe your partner is unfaithful. You do so because of odd
details that seem to have nothing to do with sex or not being
faithful. Other people can see nothing to suggest that this is
- upsetting – feeling
persecuted is obviously upsetting for you. It can also be
distressing for the people you see as your persecutors, especially
if they are close to you, like your family.
You start to see special meanings in ordinary,
day-to-day events. It feels as though things are specially
connected to you – that radio or TV programmes are about you, or
that someone is telling you things in odd ways, for example,
through the colours of cars passing in the street.
- Delusions may, or may not,
affect the way you behave.
- It can be hard to talk to
other people about them – you realise that they won't
- If you feel that other
people are trying to harm or harass you, you will probably just
keep to yourself. If you feel really threatened, you may want to
hit back in some way.
- You may try to escape your
feelings of persecution by moving from place to place. After a few
days or weeks in a new place though, the feelings just come
Muddled thinking (or ‘thought disorder’)
You find it harder to concentrate – it's more
and more difficult to:
- finish an article in the newspaper or watch a TV programme to
- keep up with your studies at college
- keep your mind on your job at work.
Your thoughts wander. You drift from idea to
idea – but there's no clear connection between them. After a minute
or two you can’t remember what you were originally trying to think
about. Some people describe their thoughts as being ‘misty’ or
‘hazy’ when this is happening. When your thoughts are disconnected
in this way, it can be hard for other people to understand you.
Feelings of being controlled
You can also feel that:
- your thoughts have suddenly
disappeared – as though someone has taken them out of your
- your thoughts feel as though
they are not yours – it's as though someone else has put them into
- your body is being taken over,
or that you are being controlled like a puppet or a robot.
Some people explain these experiences by
thinking it's the radio, television or laser beams, or that a
device has been implanted in them. Other people blame witchcraft,
angry spirits, God or the Devil.
- You start to lose your normal
thoughts, feelings and motivations.
- You lose interest in life.
Your energy, emotions and ‘get-up-and-go’ just drain away. It’s
hard to feel excited or enthusiastic about anything.
- You can’t concentrate.
- You don't bother to get up
or go out of the house.
- You stop washing or tidying,
or keeping your clothes clean.
- You feel uncomfortable with
People can find it hard to understand that
negative symptoms are really symptoms – not just laziness. This can
make it difficult for both you and your family. Your family feel
that you just need to pull yourself together. You can’t explain
that … you just can’t. Negative symptoms are less dramatic than
positive symptoms, but can be really hard to live with.
Does everyone with schizophrenia have all these
No. You can hear voices and have negative
symptoms, but may not have delusional ideas. Some people with
delusional ideas seem to have very few negative symptoms. If you
only have thought disorder and negative symptoms, they may not be
recognised for years. Other aspects include:
- Loss of "insight": it feels as though everyone else is wrong,
that they just can’t understand the things that you can. You feel
that the problem is with the rest of the world, not with you.
- If you have schizophrenia for the first time, there is a
roughly 50-50 chance that you will feel depressed, often
before you get more obvious symptoms.
- Around 1 in 7 people with continuing symptoms will become
depressed. This can be mistaken for negative symptoms.
- Antipsychotic medication has been blamed – but research
suggests that it actually helps depression in schizophrenia.
- If you have schizophrenia and feel depressed, make sure that you
tell someone and that they take you seriously.
How common is schizophrenia?
It affects around 1 in every 100 people over
the course of their life.
It affects men and women equally and seems to
be more common in city areas and in some ethnic minority groups. It
is rare before the age of 15, but can start at any time after this,
most often between the ages of 15 to 35.
What causes schizophrenia?
We don’t yet know for sure. It is probably a
combination of several different things, which will be different
for different people.
Although only 1 in 100 people get
schizophrenia, about 1 in 10 people with schizophrenia have a
parent with the illness.
An identical twin has exactly the
same genetic make-up as his or her brother or sister, down to the
smallest piece of DNA. If one identical twin has schizophrenia,
their twin has about a 50:50 chance of having it too.
Non-identical twins have a different
genetic make-up to each other. If one of them has schizophrenia,
the risk to the other twin is just slightly more than for any other
brother or sister. These findings are much the same even if twins
are adopted and brought up in different families.
1 in 100
1 in 10
1 identical twin (same genetic make up)
1 in 2
1 non-identical twin (different genetic make
1 in 8
Brain scans show that there are differences in
the brains of some people with schizophrenia – but not in others.
Where this is the case, it may be that parts of the brain have not
grown normally because of:
- a problem during birth that
stops the baby’s brain from getting enough oxygen
- a virus infection during the
early months of pregnancy.
Drugs and alcohol
Sometimes, street drugs seem to bring on
Amphetamines can give you psychotic symptoms,
but they usually stop when you stop taking the amphetamines. We
don’t yet know whether these drugs, on their own, can trigger off a
long-term illness, but they may do if you are vulnerable.
Some people start using drugs or alcohol
to cope with symptoms, but this can make things worse.
- The heavy use of cannabis seems to double the risk of
developing schizophrenia. New research has shown that the stronger
forms of cannabis, such as skunk, may increase this risk.
- It’s more likely if you start using cannabis in your early
- If you have smoked it frequently (more than 50 times) during
your teens, the effect is even stronger – you are 6 times more
likely to develop schizophrenia.
Difficulties often seem to happen shortly
before symptoms get worse. This may be a sudden event like a car
accident, bereavement or moving home. It can be an everyday
problem, such as difficulty with work or studies. Long-term stress,
such as family tensions, can also make it worse.
At one time people thought that communication
problems in the family could cause schizophrenia. This doesn’t seem
to be the case. However, if you have schizophrenia, family tensions
can certainly make it worse.
As with other mental disorders, schizophrenia
is more likely if you were deprived or physically or sexually
abused as a child.
A few people with schizophrenia do become violent – they usually
hurt themselves but sometimes hurt other people. This can be caused
by feelings of persecution or voices telling them to do it – often
a combination of the two. It is much more likely if the person has
used drugs or alcohol.
Many people with schizophrenia now never have
to go into hospital and are able to settle down, work and have
For every 5 people with schizophrenia:
- 1 will get better within five years of
their first obvious symptoms
- 3 will get better, but will have times when
they get worse again
- 1 will have troublesome symptoms for long
periods of time.
What will happen as time goes on?
If you just hear voices, don't mind them and
they don't interfere with your life, you probably may not need any
special help. However, if the voices become too loud or unpleasant
(or if other symptoms develop), then you should talk it over with a
Suicide is more common in schizophrenia –
particularly if someone has symptoms, has become depressed, is not
getting treatment or is getting less help than they used to.
The evidence is beginning to suggest that if
schizophrenia is treated early:
- you are less likely to have to come into hospital
- you are less likely to need intensive support at home
- if you do come into hospital, you will spend less time
- you are more likely to be able to work and live
If you have the symptoms of schizophrenia for the first time,
you should start medication as soon as possible.
You may not need to come into hospital, but
you will need to see a psychiatrist and a community mental health
team. They will usually be able to plan your treatment with you at
home. Even if you do have to come into hospital, it will only be
until you are well enough to manage at home.
This can help the most disturbing symptoms of
the illness – but it is not the whole answer. It is usually an
important step which can make other kinds of help possible. Other
important parts of recovery are support from families and friends,
psychological treatments and services such as supported housing,
day care and employment schemes.
Medication reduces the
effects of the symptoms on your life. Medication should:
- weaken delusions and hallucinations gradually, over a period of
a few weeks;
- help your thoughts to be clearer;
- increase your motivation and ability to look after yourself –
although too much medication (or the wrong medication for you) can
have the opposite effect.
How is it taken?
- As tablets, capsules, or syrup. It’s hard for anybody to
remember to take tablets several times a day, so there are now some
that you only need to take once a day.
- If you find it hard to take tablets every day, you may find it
easier to take antipsychotic
medication as an injection every 2, 3 or 4 weeks.
These are called depot injections and are given by a nurse.
How well does medication work?
- About 4 in 5 people get help from them. They control the
symptoms, but do not get rid of them. You have to go on taking the
medication to stop the symptoms from coming back.
- Even if the medication helps, the symptoms may come back. This
is much less likely to happen if you carry on taking medication,
even when you feel well.
How long will I have to take medication
- Most psychiatrists will suggest that you take medication for a
- If you want to reduce or stop your medication, discuss this
with your doctor.
- Reduce your medication gradually. If you do this, you can
notice any symptoms returning before you become really unwell
What happens when I stop taking medication?
The symptoms will usually come
back – not immediately, but usually within 3 – 6 months. You can
find more information about antipsychotic medication
on our website.
Getting back to normal
Schizophrenia can make everyday life hard to
deal with. This may or may not be due to the symptoms. Sometimes
you may just get out of the habit of doing things for yourself. It
can be difficult to get back to doing ordinary things like washing,
answering the door, shopping, making a phone call or chatting with
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT)
This can be done by clinical psychologists,
psychiatrists or nurse therapists. It helps you to:
- concentrate on the problems that you find most difficult. These
could be thoughts, hallucinations or feelings that you are being
- look at how you tend to think about them – your ‘thinking
- look at how you react to them – your ‘behaving habits’.
- look at how your thinking or behaving habits affect you.
- work out if any of these thinking or behaving habits are
unrealistic or unhelpful.
- work out more helpful ways of thinking about these things or
reacting to them.
- try out new ways of thinking and behaving.
- see if these work. If they do, to help you use them regularly.
If they don’t, to find better ones that do work for you.
This kind of therapy can help you to feel
better about yourself and to learn new ways of solving problems. We
now know that CBT can
also help you to control troublesome hallucinations or delusional
ideas. Most people have between 8 and 20 sessions, each lasting
about 1 hour. To help the symptoms of schizophrenia, you may need
to carry on with ‘booster’ courses from time to time.
Counselling and supportive psychotherapy
These can help you to:
- get things off your chest
- talk things over in more depth
- get some help with the daily problems of life.
These try to help you and your family cope
better with the situation. They can be used to discuss information
about schizophrenia, how best to support someone with schizophrenia
and how to solve the practical problems that can crop up.
Meetings are held over a period of about 6 months.
Support from the Community Mental Health Team (CMHT) or
Early Intervention Team
- A mental health worker from
your local team (your care coordinator) should see you regularly.
Community psychiatric nurses can give you time to talk and can help
sort out problems with medication.
- Occupational therapists can:
- help you to be clear what
your skills are and what you can do
- show you how to improve
things you aren’t doing so well
- work out ways of helping you
to do more for yourself
- help you to improve your
social skills (how to get on with other people).
- There may be help for families, with regular meetings for a
while. These can help the family to:
- learn more about the illness and treatment
- sort out some of the practical problems of day-to-day
- The psychiatrist will usually organise your medication and take
responsibility for your overall care.
- The care coordinator is
responsible for making sure that you get the care you need.
- Vocational rehabilitation or
recovery workers can help you to get back into work, education or
some sort of activity that you find rewarding.
Managing your medication
- Apart from clozapine, antipsychotic
medications seem to work as well as each other. Which
antipsychotics you start with will need to be discussed
fully with your doctor, taking into account their possible
- It is also not possible to
predict whether one antipsychotic will work better for you
than another. You may need to try one antipsychotic and see how you
get on with it. If it doesn't help you, or if the side-effects are
a problem, your psychiatrist will help you to find one that suits
- Clozapine does seem to work
better than other antipsychotics for some people. However, its
side-effects can be dangerous, so it can only be
prescribed by a specialist after other treatments have failed. If
you have had both a ‘typical’ antipsychotic and an ‘atypical’
antipsychotic for 8 weeks without real help from either,
clozapine may be worth trying.
- Your medication should be reviewed by your psychiatrist at
least once a year.
- CBT seems to be helpful in
people who are taking medication. We don’t know how well it
works if someone is not taking medication. It is recommended in
very early schizophrenia, or if you are likely to develop a
- If you want further
information about treatments, see the NICE guidelines (listed
- If you are unhappy with your
treatment, you can ask for a second opinion from another
You may not be working, or may be unable to go
back to work. Even so, it’s good to get out and do something every
Many people go regularly to a day hospital,
day centre, or community mental health centre. These have a number
of things you can do – keep fit, creative pursuits like painting
and pottery, education or getting back to work activities. You can
get active again and spend some time with other people.
These facilities don't exist in some areas
where there is, perhaps, more emphasis on helping people to be
included in ‘mainstream’ activities for everybody, whether or not
they have had psychological difficulties.
Some services can now provide support from people who themselves
have had a psychotic illness.
Getting back to work
You may need to develop your skills for
work. Vocational workers will often have contacts with local
employers and can support you when you go back to work.
These use art activities to help people to:
- find different ways of being with other people
- express and understand feelings they may not have been able to
put into words
- to have the satisfaction of creating something.
These activities are usually done in groups.
This could be a bedsit or flat where there is
someone around to help you with day-to-day problems.
CPA – Care Programme Approach (England & Wales
This is a way of making sure that people with
schizophrenia get appropriate care and support. It involves:
- a care coordinator who is responsible for
organising all the different parts of your care and treatment.
- regular meetings every 3 – 6 months. These
involve you, your care coordinator, your psychiatrist and
any other people who are giving you care or support. This can
include your family or carers.
- a care plan that is checked at the regular
CPA meetings. It is re-written each time and you will have a copy
to approve or change.
- plans are made with you at these meetings
about what to do if you find yourself becoming unwell again,
or run into difficulties.
If you are unwell for a long time, you may
need a specialist
Learn to recognise
early signs that you are getting unwell, such as:
- everyday things like going
off your food, feeling anxious or not sleeping;
- other people may notice that
you stop bothering to change your clothes, clean your flat or cook
- mild symptoms – you feel a
bit suspicious or fearful or start to worry about people’s motives.
You may start to hear voices quietly or occasionally, or find it
difficult to concentrate.
Try to avoid
things that make you worse, such as:
- stressful situations such as
spending too much time with people (although being with people can
be helpful – see below);
- using street drugs or
- getting anxious about bills,
but not asking for help or advice (see our leaflet on
debt and mental
- disagreements with family,
Make sure you regularly do
something you enjoy.
Find ways of controlling your
- spend time with other
- keep busy
- listen to a personal stereo
(TV and radio also work but may annoy your family or
- remind yourself that your
voices can’t harm you
- remind yourself that your
voices can't harm you
- remind yourself that your
voices don’t have any power over you and can’t force you to do
anything you don’t want to.
Join a self-help
group for people with similar experiences to yours (see
Agree with someone
you trust that they can tell you if you are becoming
Learn about schizophrenia and your
- talk it over with your nurse,
mental health worker, psychiatrist - or someone else with
- ask for written information
about your diagnosis and treatment
- if your medication is not working well, ask
about other medications.
Your physical health
Look after your body. People with schizophrenia have poorer
health than other people. It's not clear why. It may be something
to do with eating badly, getting less exercise and smoking more
than other people. It may be made worse by some of the medications
that are prescribed for psychosis.
Whatever the causes, if you have schizophrenia, it makes sense
to take care of your physical health. Both your GP and your
psychiatrist need to help you do this. They should
- Help you to eat better and keep active.
- Regularly monitor your weight and how your heart is
- Help you to cut down or stop smoking. This could be Nicotine
replacement - gum, patches or inhalers. There are also some
medications that can help.
- Offer you help if you:
- Have problems with the amount of sugar in your blood.
- Put on too much weight.
- Have high lipid levels in your blood.
- You can:
- Try to eat a balanced diet, with lots of fresh vegetables and
- Try not to smoke - cigarettes harm your lungs, your heart, your
circulation and your stomach.
- Take some regular exercise, even if it's only 20 minutes out
walking every day. Regular vigorous exercise (double your pulse
rate for 20 minutes 3 times a week) can help improve your
- Avoid street drugs.
For family members
It can be hard to understand
what is happening if your son or daughter, husband or wife, brother
or sister develops schizophrenia. Sometimes, no-one realises what
Your relative may become odd, distant or just different from how
they used to be. They may avoid contact with people and
become less active. If they have delusional ideas, they may
talk about them but may also keep quiet about them. If they are
hearing voices, they may suddenly look away from you as if they are
listening to something else. When you speak to them, they may say
little, or be difficult to understand. Their sleep pattern may
change so that they stay up all night and sleep during the day.
In a teenager, you may wonder if this
behaviour is just rebellious. It can happen so slowly that only
when you look back can you see when it started. It can be
particularly difficult to recognise these changes during the
teenage years, when young people are changing so much anyway.
You may start to blame yourself and wonder ‘Was it my
fault?’ You may wonder if anyone else in the family is going
to be affected, what the future holds, or how they can get the best
Can I talk to the psychiatrist?
Families have often been left out of
discussions because of worries about confidentiality. This should
not be the case now. People with schizophrenia are often living
with or being supported by their family. So, their family needs the
information that will allow them to care most effectively. Even if
the person does not want their family to be involved, the family
can still tell the mental health team about what is going on.
You may also need advice. What do you need to
do? Schizophrenia makes people more sensitive to stress, so it is
helpful to avoid arguments and keep calm - perhaps easier said than
Carer assessment and support plan
Families deserve the help and information they need, and mental
health teams need to listen to their worries and concerns. The
mental health team should offer to assess a carer's needs so they
can make a plan for supporting the carer. A carer also has the
right to a carer's assessment from local social services.
Checklist for carers
Carers UK (formerly the Princess Royal Trust for Carers) and the
Royal College of Psychiatrists published a checklist for
families, to help them find out what they need to
know. Several voluntary organisation provide useful information and
support (see list below).
Isn't schizophrenia a split
No. Too many people have the idea that someone
with schizophrenia can appear perfectly normal at one moment, and
change into a different person the next. This is not true.
People can misuse the word ‘schizophrenia’ in
two different ways to mean:
- Having mixed or contradictory
feelings about something. This is just part of human nature - a
much better word is ‘ambivalent’.
- That someone behaves in very
different ways at different times. Again, this is just part of
Doesn't schizophrenia make people
Usually not. Any violence is
usually sparked off by street drugs or alcohol - not
unlike people who don’t suffer from schizophrenia.
There is a higher risk of violent behaviour if
you have schizophrenia, but it is very small compared to the
effects of drugs and alcohol. People with schizophrenia are far
more likely to be harmed by other people than other people are to
be harmed by them.
Schizophrenia never gets better
1 in 4-5 people with schizophrenia recover
completely. 3 out of 5 people with schizophrenia will be helped or
get better with treatment.
If there is an inaccurate or abusive item about schizophrenia in
the press, a radio talk show or on TV. don't get depressed, get
active. Write a letter, email them, phone them and tell them where
they are wrong. It does work!
This website is all about unfounded or
excessive fears about others.
Advice line: 0300 5000 927 (Monday to
Friday, 10 am - 2 pm). National voluntary organisation that helps
people with any severe mental illness, their families and
Tel: 0131 662 4359. Works to improve the wellbeing and quality
of life of people affected by serious mental illness. This includes
those who are family members, carers and supporters.
Publishes a wide range of literature on all aspects of mental
A national mental health helpline offering emotional support
and practical information for people with mental illness, families,
carers and professionals.
Shine: supporting people
with mental ill health (Ireland): Information
Helpline: 1890 621 631
Fast Facts: Schizophrenia. S Lewis and RW
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This leaflet is based on the NICE
Produced by the Royal College of Psychiatrists' Public
Engagement Editorial Board
Series Editor: Dr Philip Timms
User & Carer input: Service User and carer representatives
from the RCPsych Public Engagement Editorial Board.
© Illustration by Lo Cole: www.locole.co.uk
This leaflet reflects the best available evidence available at
the time of writing.
© August 2015.
Due for review: August 2018. Royal College of
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