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Understanding Schizophrenia: How to Recognize the Causes, Symptoms, and Early Warning Signs in Young People


Schizophrenia is a serious and chronic mental health disorder that alters how someone thinks and feels in a way that can interfere with normal behavior. The onset of the illness can happen at any age, but the U.S. National Library of Medicine says signs most commonly start showing between the ages of 16 and 30, with men generally developing it in their late teens to early 20s and women in their late 20s to early 30s. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) reports that only about 1 percent of the American population suffers from it, but those who have it struggle to live a functional life.

People with the illness may hear or see things that aren’t real or present and often have trouble controlling their own thoughts. They also might exhibit unusual behaviors and believe things that aren’t true, such as the idea that someone else is trying to hurt them. These unhealthy and scary thoughts can not only negatively affect people with the disorder, but also their friends and family, particularly if they rely on loved ones for care.

Seeing someone you love suffer the mental and emotional symptoms of the illness can make you feel helpless. Fortunately, it is treatable. If you don’t understand schizophrenia but are concerned you know someone who might be dealing with the disorder, it is important to learn about the causes, symptoms, and early warning signs so you can determine if treatment is necessary.

Symptoms of Schizophrenia in Young Adults

Knowing what signs to look for is the first step in identifying a problem with a friend or loved one. If someone you know has been starting to exhibit common symptoms of schizophrenia for more than a month, they may be developing the disorder. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), there are three categories of symptoms that generally accompany the mental illness – positive, negative and cognitive. Taking early notice of these signs in young people is critical to successful recovery and a more stable adult life.

Positive Schizophrenia Symptoms

Positive symptoms are those experienced by schizophrenic individuals, but not those who are mentally healthy. In some people they are always there, while others experience these side effects on and off. The severity of symptoms may also vary from person to person and time to time. Examples of positive symptoms include:

  • Hallucinations (common in teens)
  • Hearing voices that aren’t there
  • Delusions
  • Paranoia
  • Movement disorders

Negative Schizophrenia Symptoms

Negative symptoms are those that diminish normal functioning. They are more difficult to diagnose as part of schizophrenia, particularly in adolescents, but usually include a loss of emotional expression, disorganized speech, a lack of interest in things the person used to enjoy, and the inability to focus and complete tasks. The Mayo Clinic says the presence of negative symptoms can result in any of the following consequences, especially in young people:

  • Neglected personal hygiene
  • Minimized eye contact
  • Speaking in a monotone voice
  • Loss of friends
  • Apathy toward life

Cognitive Schizophrenia Symptoms

Cognitive symptoms affect a person’s ability to process and retain information. These warning signs may not be as obvious as the positive ones, as they are often uncovered through testing. Because these are connected to focus, memory, and decision-making, cognitive problems may reveal themselves through different changes, including:

  • A drop in grades
  • Loss of job or difficulty getting a job
  • Trouble keeping relationships
  • Increased irritability

What Increases the Risk of Schizophrenia in Young Adults?

Recognizing the symptoms of schizophrenia can help you determine if a mental illness is a possibility, but understanding someone’s risk of developing it is also key. There doesn’t seem to be one specific trigger, but instead, a combination of environmental and biological influences may contribute. According to NAMI, certain factors can affect the likelihood of a young adult developing the disorder: 

  • Substance abuse: Young people who experiment with mind-altering substances in adolescence may increase their risk of developing schizophrenia. Frequent drug use may also lead to an earlier and more serious onset of the disorder, and is even sometimes a precursor to it.
  • Genetics: A family history of schizophrenia and psychosis increases the chances of someone having the illness. Approximately 10 percent of people with a first-degree family member who is schizophrenic also develop the condition.
  • Environment: A person’s environment alone will not cause a mental disorder, however, the National Institute of Mental Health notes environmental factors, such as prenatal malnutrition or exposure to viruses in the womb, may increase his or her risk.

Dangers Young Adults with Schizophrenia Face

A young person dealing with schizophrenia and not receiving treatment is at risk for additional problems the longer they have the disorder. Unfortunately, suicide and suicidal thoughts are fairly common in those struggling with the mental illness. Substance abuse may also become an issue as someone tries to cope with schizophrenia, and is the most common co-occurring disorder. When both are present, treatment must address both conditions to be most effective.

How Is Schizophrenia Treated?

While schizophrenia has been considered incurable in the past, recovery is possible with new treatment methods and approaches. Since there is not one root cause of the disorder, treatment focuses mostly on fighting the symptoms. Per the NIMH, a combination of the following options is generally used by medical professionals providing care:

  • Antipsychotic Medication: Reduces hallucinations, delusions, and intensity of other symptoms.
  • Rehabilitation: Teaches individuals social and professional skills for career development by providing programs for employment assistance, money management, and relationship counseling.
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: Can be provided in group or individual sessions and helps transform abnormal behavior and thinking patterns by teaching patients how to recognize unrealistic thoughts.
  • Psychosocial Therapy: Focuses on helping stable patients manage challenges and use coping skills to achieve life goals and improve communication and relationships.

Quality, comprehensive treatment also usually includes family education and support. Schizophrenia affects more than just the person who has it, and it’s important that loved ones receive the resources and information necessary to help assist in the recovery process.

Knowing the key symptoms and risk factors of schizophrenia might help you recognize the illness earlier on and allow you to seek help before other problems develop. If you are concerned a young person you know is developing this disorder, the best thing you can do is encourage treatment and offer open communication. To get comprehensive treatment for adolescents starting to show signs of schizophrenia or inpatient care for young adults dealing with psychosis, contact San Antonio Behavioral Healthcare Hospital. We work closely with our patients and their families to find the right treatment combination for each individual situation. Our focus is on helping those with mental illness gain control over their thoughts and behaviors to live a more functional way of life.

Call San Antonio Behavioral at 210-541-5350, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, to get a free assessment or discuss care options for your loved one.


https://medlineplus.gov/schizophrenia.html https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/schizophrenia/what-is-schizophrenia