How is schizophrenia treated?
Because the causes of schizophrenia are still unknown, treatments focus on eliminating the symptoms of the disease. Treatments include antipsychotic medications and various psychosocial treatments.
Antipsychotic medications have been available since the mid-1950’s. The older types are called conventional or “typical” antipsychotics. Some of the more commonly used typical medications include:
- Chlorpromazine (Thorazine)
- Haloperidol (Haldol)
- Perphenazine (Etrafon, Trilafon)
- Fluphenazine (Prolixin)
In the 1990’s, new antipsychotic medications were developed. These new medications are called second generation, or “atypical” antipsychotics.
One of these medications, clozapine (Clozaril) is an effective medication that treats psychotic symptoms, hallucinations, and breaks with reality. But clozapine can sometimes cause a serious problem called agranulocytosis, which is a loss of the white blood cells that help a person fight infection. People who take clozapine must get their white blood cell counts checked every week or two. This problem and the cost of blood tests make treatment with clozapine difficult for many people. But clozapine is potentially helpful for people who do not respond to other antipsychotic medications.19
Other atypical antipsychotics were also developed. None cause agranulocytosis. Examples include:
- Risperidone (Risperdal)
- Olanzapine (Zyprexa)
- Quetiapine (Seroquel)
- Ziprasidone (Geodon)
- Aripiprazole (Abilify)
- Paliperidone (Invega).
When a doctor says it is okay to stop taking a medication, it should be gradually tapered off, never stopped suddenly.
What are the side effects?
Some people have side effects when they start taking these medications. Most side effects go away after a few days and often can be managed successfully. People who are taking antipsychotics should not drive until they adjust to their new medication. Side effects of many antipsychotics include:
- Dizziness when changing positions
- Blurred vision
- Rapid heartbeat
- Sensitivity to the sun
- Skin rashes
- Menstrual problems for women.
Atypical antipsychotic medications can cause major weight gain and changes in a person’s metabolism. This may increase a person’s risk of getting diabetes and high cholesterol.20A person’s weight, glucose levels, and lipid levels should be monitored regularly by a doctor while taking an atypical antipsychotic medication.
Typical antipsychotic medications can cause side effects related to physical movement, such as:
- Persistent muscle spasms
Long-term use of typical antipsychotic medications may lead to a condition called tardive dyskinesia (TD). TD causes muscle movements a person can’t control. The movements commonly happen around the mouth. TD can range from mild to severe, and in some people the problem cannot be cured. Sometimes people with TD recover partially or fully after they stop taking the medication.
TD happens to fewer people who take the atypical antipsychotics, but some people may still get TD. People who think that they might have TD should check with their doctor before stopping their medication.
How are antipsychotics taken and how do people respond to them?
Antipsychotics are usually in pill or liquid form. Some anti-psychotics are shots that are given once or twice a month.
Symptoms of schizophrenia, such as feeling agitated and having hallucinations, usually go away within days. Symptoms like delusions usually go away within a few weeks. After about six weeks, many people will see a lot of improvement.
However, people respond in different ways to antipsychotic medications, and no one can tell beforehand how a person will respond. Sometimes a person needs to try several medications before finding the right one. Doctors and patients can work together to find the best medication or medication combination, as well as the right dose.
Some people may have a relapse-their symptoms come back or get worse. Usually, relapses happen when people stop taking their medication, or when they only take it sometimes. Some people stop taking the medication because they feel better or they may feel they don’t need it anymore. But no one should stop taking an antipsychotic medication without talking to his or her doctor. When a doctor says it is okay to stop taking a medication, it should be gradually tapered off, never stopped suddenly.
How do antipsychotics interact with other medications?
Antipsychotics can produce unpleasant or dangerous side effects when taken with certain medications. For this reason, all doctors treating a patient need to be aware of all the medications that person is taking. Doctors need to know about prescription and over-the-counter medicine, vitamins, minerals, and herbal supplements. People also need to discuss any alcohol or other drug use with their doctor.
To find out more about how antipsychotics work, the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) funded a study called CATIE (Clinical Antipsychotic Trials of Intervention Effectiveness). This study compared the effectiveness and side effects of five antipsychotics used to treat people with schizophrenia. In general, the study found that the older typical antipsychotic perphenazine (Trilafon) worked as well as the newer, atypical medications. But because people respond differently to different medications, it is important that treatments be designed carefully for each person.
Psychosocial treatments can help people with schizophrenia who are already stabilized on antipsychotic medication. Psychosocial treatments help these patients deal with the everyday challenges of the illness, such as difficulty with communication, self-care, work, and forming and keeping relationships. Learning and using coping mechanisms to address these problems allow people with schizophrenia to socialize and attend school and work.
Patients who receive regular psychosocial treatment also are more likely to keep taking their medication, and they are less likely to have relapses or be hospitalized. A therapist can help patients better understand and adjust to living with schizophrenia. The therapist can provide education about the disorder, common symptoms or problems patients may experience, and the importance of staying on medications.
Illness management skills. People with schizophrenia can take an active role in managing their own illness. Once patients learn basic facts about schizophrenia and its treatment, they can make informed decisions about their care. If they know how to watch for the early warning signs of relapse and make a plan to respond, patients can learn to prevent relapses. Patients can also use coping skills to deal with persistent symptoms.
Integrated treatment for co-occurring substance abuse. Substance abuse is the most common co-occurring disorder in people with schizophrenia. But ordinary substance abuse treatment programs usually do not address this population’s special needs. When schizophrenia treatment programs and drug treatment programs are used together, patients get better results.
Rehabilitation. Rehabilitation emphasizes social and vocational training to help people with schizophrenia function better in their communities. Because schizophrenia usually develops in people during the critical career-forming years of life (ages 18 to 35), and because the disease makes normal thinking and functioning difficult, most patients do not receive training in the skills needed for a job.
Rehabilitation programs can include job counseling and training, money management counseling, help in learning to use public transportation, and opportunities to practice communication skills. Rehabilitation programs work well when they include both job training and specific therapy designed to improve cognitive or thinking skills. Programs like this help patients hold jobs, remember important details, and improve their functioning.21,22,23
Family education. People with schizophrenia are often discharged from the hospital into the care of their families. So it is important that family members know as much as possible about the disease. With the help of a therapist, family members can learn coping strategies and problem-solving skills. In this way the family can help make sure their loved one sticks with treatment and stays on his or her medication. Families should learn where to find outpatient and family services.
Cognitive behavioral therapy. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a type of psychotherapy that focuses on thinking and behavior. CBT helps patients with symptoms that do not go away even when they take medication. The therapist teaches people with schizophrenia how to test the reality of their thoughts and perceptions, how to “not listen” to their voices, and how to manage their symptoms overall. CBT can help reduce the severity of symptoms and reduce the risk of relapse.
Self-help groups. Self-help groups for people with schizophrenia and their families are becoming more common. Professional therapists usually are not involved, but group members support and comfort each other. People in self-help groups know that others are facing the same problems, which can help everyone feel less isolated. The networking that takes place in self-help groups can also prompt families to work together to advocate for research and more hospital and community treatment programs. Also, groups may be able to draw public attention to the discrimination many people with mental illnesses face.
Once patients learn basic facts about schizophrenia and its treatment, they can make informed decisions about their care.
How can you help a person with schizophrenia?
People with schizophrenia can get help from professional case managers and caregivers at residential or day programs. However, family members usually are a patient’s primary caregivers.
People with schizophrenia often resist treatment. They may not think they need help because they believe their delusions or hallucinations are real. In these cases, family and friends may need to take action to keep their loved one safe. Laws vary from state to state, and it can be difficult to force a person with a mental disorder into treatment or hospitalization. But when a person becomes dangerous to himself or herself, or to others, family members or friends may have to call the police to take their loved one to the hospital.
Treatment at the hospital. In the emergency room, a mental health professional will assess the patient and determine whether a voluntary or involuntary admission is needed. For a person to be admitted involuntarily, the law states that the professional must witness psychotic behavior and hear the person voice delusional thoughts. Family and friends can provide needed information to help a mental health professional make a decision.
After a loved one leaves the hospital. Family and friends can help their loved ones get treatment and take their medication once they go home. If patients stop taking their medication or stop going to follow-up appointments, their symptoms likely will return. Sometimes symptoms become severe for people who stop their medication and treatment. This is dangerous, since they may become unable to care for themselves. Some people end up on the street or in jail, where they rarely receive the kind of help they need.
Family and friends can also help patients set realistic goals and learn to function in the world. Each step toward these goals should be small and taken one at a time. The patient will need support during this time. When people with a mental illness are pressured and criticized, they usually do not get well. Often, their symptoms may get worse. Telling them when they are doing something right is the best way to help them move forward.
It can be difficult to know how to respond to someone with schizophrenia who makes strange or clearly false statements. Remember that these beliefs or hallucinations seem very real to the person. It is not helpful to say they are wrong or imaginary. But going along with the delusions is not helpful, either. Instead, calmly say that you see things differently. Tell them that you acknowledge that everyone has the right to see things his or her own way. In addition, it is important to understand that schizophrenia is a biological illness. Being respectful, supportive, and kind without tolerating dangerous or inappropriate behavior is the best way to approach people with this disorder.
People with schizophrenia can get help from professional case managers and caregivers at residential or day programs.
What is the outlook for the future?
The outlook for people with schizophrenia continues to improve. Although there is no cure, treatments that work well are available. Many people with schizophrenia improve enough to lead independent, satisfying lives.
Continued research and understanding in genetics, neuroscience, and behavioral science will help scientists and health professionals understand the causes of the disorder and how it may be predicted and prevented. This work will help experts develop better treatments to help people with schizophrenia achieve their full potential. Families and individuals who are living with schizophrenia are encouraged to participate in clinical research.
Citations for All Parts
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