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What is Schizophrenia?

Schizophrenia is a chronic, severe, devastating, and disabling brain disease. It’s the most chronic and disabling of the severe mental illnesses. Approximately one percent of the population develops schizophrenia during their lifetime. More than two million Americans suffer from the illness every year. Schizophrenia affects men and women with equal frequency, but the disorder often appears earlier in men, usually in the late teens or early twenties. Women tend to be affected in their twenties to early thirties.

The first signs of schizophrenia often appear as confusing, or even shocking changes in behavior. Coping with the symptoms of schizophrenia can be especially difficult for family members or friends who remember how involved or outgoing a person was before they became ill.

The sudden onset of severe psychotic symptoms is referred to as an acute phase of schizophrenia. Psychosis -- a common condition in schizophrenia -- is a state of mental impairment marked by hallucinations, which are disturbances of sensory perception, and or delusions, which are false yet strongly held personal beliefs that result from an inability to separate real from unreal experiences. Less obvious symptoms, such as social isolation, or unusual speech, thinking, or behavior, may precede, be seen along with, or follow the psychotic symptoms.

People with schizophrenia often suffer terrifying symptoms such as hearing internal voices, or believing that other people are reading their minds. They may think others are controlling their thoughts, or plotting to harm them, they may seem very paranoid to you -- and they most likely are. These symptoms may leave them fearful and withdrawn.

Their speech and behavior can be so disorganized that they may be very frightening to others. Available treatments can relieve many symptoms, but most people with schizophrenia continue to suffer some symptoms throughout their lives. It's been estimated that no more than one in five individuals recovers completely.

There is hope for people with schizophrenia and their families. Research is gradually leading to new and safer medications and unraveling the complex causes of the disease. See part four for more on possible causes and research.

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Schizophrenia Basics

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