Children often have imaginary friends or immerse themselves in fantasy worlds. These are normal age-appropriate behaviors that can be a healthy part of development. However, when these beliefs become delusions, it may be indicative of an underlying mental health disorder, such as schizophrenia. The onset of schizophrenia is most common from mid-teens to mid-twenties, as the National Institute of Mental Health reports that only one in 40,000 children experiences symptoms of schizophrenia prior to age 13. Though schizophrenia is not common among adolescents, it is a serious psychotic disorder that is best treated when identified early.
Psychosis is the inability to distinguish between what is real and what is not. The primary symptoms of schizophrenic psychosis fall into two categories — delusions and hallucinations. A delusion is a belief that something is real or true, despite proof of the contrary. For instance, an individual’s belief that a news anchor is speaking through the TV set directly to him or her is a delusion. A hallucination is a matter of perception, having sensory experiences that are not happening in reality. Examples of hallucinations include the individual seeing things or hearing voices giving instructions for him or her to carry out. Other symptoms associated with schizophrenia include disorganized speech, abnormal motor behavior and negative symptoms. Behaviors associated with early stages of schizophrenia include disregard for personal hygiene, preoccupation with fantastical ideas and, often, substance abuse.
Common behavioral indicators of schizophrenia in adolescents and teens include withdrawal, social isolation and decline in performance at school. While men and women are equally likely to develop schizophrenia, adolescent and teen boys are more likely to exhibit symptoms than girls. This is because, on average, the onset of schizophrenia in females is 10 years later than schizophrenic males. The disorder also presents itself differently in the sexes, as women are more likely to have paranoid delusions and hallucinations than men who exhibit more negative symptoms and disorganized thinking and speech. Symptoms must be present for at least six months for a diagnosis to be made. However, several other psychiatric disorders have similar symptoms as schizophrenia, making misdiagnosis common. These disorders can also co-occur with schizophrenia, particularly bipolar disorder or depression.
Schizophrenia often has a genetic component, as it has been known to run in families. Since the disorder is the result of malfunctions in various regions of the brain that control thoughts, perceptions and behaviors, fetal brain damage and birth trauma also increase an individual’s risk of developing schizophrenia. Though substance abuse does not cause schizophrenia, the two are closely linked. Many side effects of drug and alcohol use are similar to symptoms of the disorder, contributing to misdiagnosis. Individuals struggling with schizophrenia often self-medicate with drugs and alcohol. These substances exacerbate symptoms of the disorder and can reduce the effectiveness of antipsychotic drugs. Research from Harvard Medical School indicates that regular marijuana use can potentially trigger early onset of schizophrenia in adolescents and teens with a genetic predisposition. In addition, the rate of cigarette smoking among the schizophrenic community in the United States is three times that of the general population. This is dangerous considering all stimulants, particularly nicotine, interfere with the effects of prescription drugs taken to treat schizophrenia.
Early detection of schizophrenia is essential for improving the quality of life of those struggling with the disorder. There are multiple programs throughout the state of California focusing on preventative care for schizophrenics, working with children and their families. Dr. Allen Frances, former chair of the psychiatry department at Yale University, states, “No one is harder to diagnose than a child or a teenager. There are rapid developmental changes from visit to visit. The tendency to over-diagnose is particularly problematic in teenagers.” For this reason, it is important to be aware of the signs and seek professional help for those who exhibit symptoms of psychosis.
If your child is struggling with symptoms indicative of schizophrenia, help is available. Sovereign Health Rancho San Diego is a facility that specializes in the treatment of adolescents and teenagers struggling with mental health issues, substance abuse and dual diagnosis. Call 866-615-7266 to speak with a professional today.
Written by Courtney Howard, Sovereign Health Group writer