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Schizophrenia and Treatment Medications to Manage the Mental Illness

By Sarah Densmore

Schizophrenia is one of the most debilitating and disabling of all mental disorders. Although only 1 percent of Americans suffer from the disease, schizophrenics’ extreme thoughts and behaviors often seriously impact the lives of family and friends as well.

The cause of schizophrenia is unknown, but the majority of schizophrenics who undergo treatment are helped by antipsychotic medications. While these drugs don’t cure the illness, they do eliminate the many symptoms that are characteristic of the disease.

Schizophrenia affects senses, mood, and mind

Researchers theorize that schizophrenia might be caused by a combination of genetic factors (inherited mutations that alter brain chemistry) and environmental factors (such as being malnourished or exposed to viruses before birth).

Whatever the causes, when the disease strikes, usually in early adulthood, it drastically alters how a person sees and interprets the world around him. The various visual, auditory, emotional, and perceptive changes are sweeping. Doctors have arranged these symptoms into three categories.

  • Positive: These symptoms are characterized by an exaggeration or distortion of reality. They include the most common schizophrenic symptom, delusions. Schizophrenics misinterpret experiences or believe events have happened when they actually haven’t.

    These patients also suffer from hallucinations. They see and hear things that aren’t there. Patients will also exhibit disorganized speech and behavior patterns. They’ll string words together in a random, nonsensical pattern and swing from playfulness to intense anger.

  • Negative: This category contains symptoms that demonstrate a lessening, or regression of the schizophrenic’s personality. These behaviors, which are often the first signs of the disease, include losing interest in people and day-to-day life, not attending to personal hygiene, and lacking motivation and the ability to carry out activities.

    In addition, schizophrenics can appear to lose their ability to express emotion. Their voices can become monotone and their faces expressionless, a condition known as flat affect.

  • Cognitive: Centering on the disruption in thought processes, this group of symptoms reflects a schizophrenic’s inability to understand information, recall facts and events, and be attentive.

It will probably be difficult for you to convince a schizophrenic that he needs help. Because the symptoms of schizophrenia cause sufferers to have a distorted sense of reality, he probably will not believe you when you tell him many of his experiences are caused by mental illness.

It might be possible to have your loved one undergo treatment or hospitalization involuntarily, especially if he’s a danger to himself or others. However, laws vary by state. Ask your local mental health agency for guidance.

Medications can calm the world inside and out

Antipsychotics have been around since the 1950s. However, in the 1990s a new group of antipsychotics with less severe side effects were introduced. Today, doctors classify the older antipsychotics as typical and the newer ones as atypical. Both are still prescribed.

  • Typical: These older antipsychotics include chlorpromazine, fluphenazine, haloperidol, and perphenazine. Although they can alleviate symptoms, they can also cause serious side effects.

    Patients who take typical antipsychotics run the risk of developing tardive dyskinesia, a condition characterized by uncontrollable muscle movements. These muscle movements, which usually occur around a person’s mouth, may continue, even after medication has been stopped. Muscle rigidity and tremors are other side effects of these drugs.

    Lower cost is the main benefit of typical antipsychotics over atypical drugs. Considering the fact that most patients need to take antipsychotics throughout their lives to ensure their symptoms don’t recur, cost can be an important factor in deciding among drug therapies.

  • Atypical: Antipsychotics developed within the last two decades can be effective and they don’t carry the neuromuscular dangers inherent in older drugs. These second generation treatments include aripiprazole, clozapine, olanzapine, and quetiapine.

    The newer drugs bring their own set of serious risks. For instance, clozapine can cause a dangerous decrease in white blood cells, which are crucial infection fighters. Atypical antipsychotics can also cause weight gain, which puts a patient at greater risk for developing diabetes and high cholesterol. Patients also need to be alert for blurred vision, rapid heartbeat, drowsiness, sun sensitivity, and rashes.

Patients who are helped by antipsychotics often find that their hallucinations disappear within several days and delusions subside in a few weeks. Most antipsychotics take a couple months to reach full effectiveness.

As effective as antipsychotics can be, they may not eliminate all of a schizophrenics’ symptoms. If you’re the primary caregiver for a schizophrenic, make sure he receives psychosocial treatments that will help him manage any remaining symptoms, learn the importance of continuing his medication, recognize the warning signs of relapse, and improve his communication and relationship skills.

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