Every parent fears for their children, worrying whether they’re raising their kid the right way. Add to those perfectly normal concerns the fears that perhaps the child is developing a mental health condition and the ordinary set of worries become a pile of paranoia. One such disorder that parents concern themselves that their kids have is schizophrenia. We’re going to explore the early signs of schizophrenia, understand what age is common for such signs to appear, and find ways for treatment.
What is Schizophrenia?
Schizophrenia is a mental health condition that affects one’s own ability to perceive reality properly. While schizophrenia affects each patient differently there are common symptoms that help in diagnosis. These symptoms are in two distinct categories: psychotic symptoms and negative symptoms.
Psychotic symptoms refer to the thinking, processing, and outward depictions of what the sufferer is experiencing within their mind. These are commonly the more obvious signs of the disorder. Such symptoms are: ¹
- Disorganized thoughts
- Repeated irregular body movement
Negative symptoms revolve around the overall mood and well-being of the patient. These indicators might include the highs and lows of the sufferer’s emotions. Another complication is the ability of the patient to take care of themselves and the environment around them. These indicators are not as outward presentable as they manifest over time. ²
- Decrease in energy and follow through
- Inability to take pleasure in activities that once brought joy or excitement
- Flat expression in emotions including facial reactions, tone of voice or body language
- Reduction in socialization, which may include canceling plans with friends and family
Early Signs of Schizophrenia
Unlike some mental health disorders, schizophrenia differentiates itself as it can affect those at any age, with most patients developing it early in their lives. It isn’t uncommon for children to start presenting with signs and symptoms of the disorder.
That being stated, schizophrenia often develops in adolescence, or even into early adulthood. We’re going to explore these specific signs that tend to appear in each age group so as to better understand what to look for.
In Young Children
The good news regarding schizophrenia in young children is that it’s very rare for it to develop at such young ages. In fact, it’s far more common for signs of schizophrenia to present themselves in early adolescence.
While it is true that schizophrenia is often a hereditary disease, early childhood is not common when such complications arise. However, there are subtle signs for parents to look for and monitor during a child’s development: ³
- Complications in speech, which disorganized or bizarre speech patterns
- Disorganized thoughts or rationalization issues.
- Confusing fiction stories, dreams, or ideas for reality
- Problems in socialization forming friendships or relating to others in common ways.
- Sleep and diet fluctuations or complications
- Flat effects of emotions, specifically sadness, anger, and frustration
Signs of schizophrenia are more common in early to mid-adolescence, especially when compared to early childhood.
The most common reason why schizophrenia is more prevalent in adolescence is perhaps due to the rapid changes occurring within the body and brain. The increase of hormones and changes to the internal neurological structure and processing of the brain causes behaviors that aren’t commonly seen before and sometimes leads to changes that are permanent.
It’s common in adolescence that specific symptoms of schizophrenia become prevalent. Symptoms such as: ⁴
- Extremely disorganized and abnormal motor movements and reactions. Commonly either having little to no reaction to things, overstimulation, displaying strange posture, or agitation.
- Depressive or negative episodes, often withdrawing from normal activities, social events, or everyday life.
In Young Adults
After adolescence and entering into young adulthood, schizophrenia becomes more prevalent. The more common onset of schizophrenia occurs in the early to mid-20s. ⁵ The reason why is not clear but most clinicians agree that it has to do with the rapid changes within the brain’s structures. ⁶
As for what it looks like, the symptoms are all the same as they are for those in the adolescent age group, but with heavier repercussions. Given that this is a time of great change within the body as well as the shifts in socialization, the impact of the symptoms can weigh heavier than with earlier age groups.
Those in their late teens and early twenties participate in risk-taking behaviors which can lead to serious consequences. For those with schizophrenia, such factors can lead to injury or death.
Drinking, drug taking, and reckless or thrill-seeking behaviors can be ways to escape the problems waging within the sufferer’s mind. Those with schizophrenia are 50% more likely to develop a serious substance abuse problem. ⁷
Drug use amongst those with serious mental health disorders such as schizophrenia is often used to escape problems. However, substance abuse can increase dopamine, something that is difficult for those with such conditions to get naturally.
Negative symptoms can shut out friends and loved ones causing a breakdown in communication. Self-harm and suicide become serious concerns with negative symptoms. Schizophrenics are 5 to 13% more likely to commit egregious self-harm. Unfortunately, this self-harm can result in death, with 4% of that death occurring around the onset of the illness. ⁸
In Older Adults
There are cases in which schizophrenia does not begin to present until much later in life. While it’s extremely uncommon for those to develop schizophrenia in their late thirties and throughout their forties, there seems to be an increased risk for those 50 to 70.
The reason is often due to the aging process and the fact that socialization dwindles a bit. Older adults often suffer from different illnesses occurring simultaneously and the chances of a mental health condition, like schizophrenia, become heightened. ⁹
Those older adults diagnosed with schizophrenia are predisposed to developing other serious mental health challenges, specifically clinical depression, Alzheimer’s, and dementia. ¹⁰
Treatment for those older adults with an onset of schizophrenia symptoms has a different focus than other age groups. One of the more positive outcomes for those older adults is that delusions, hallucinations, and erratic behavior is less severe.
However, older adults tend to be more sensitive to side effects of the common medications utilized in treating symptoms. Therefore, close monitoring is key for positive outcomes. ¹¹
Complications in Diagnosing Schizophrenia
Diagnosing schizophrenia can be a difficult, complicated process. Since schizophrenia shares many symptoms with other different mental health disorders, pinpointing its specifically schizophrenia can be a challenge.
Schizophrenia symptoms such as disorganized speech thought patterns and behaviors can also be a part of different forms of psychosis. The negative effects of schizophrenia such as lack of socialization, depressive swings, and breakdown of self-care can be similar to bipolar disorder.
Furthermore, the overall symptom set for schizophrenia might be mistaken for the more cyclic and episodic mental health condition called schizoaffective disorder. A condition that is more of a temporary psychosis with the symptoms of schizophrenia. ¹²
When to Seek Medical Attention
The scariest part of any mental illness is when it escalates to a point where medical intervention is a necessity. Figuring out exactly when can be tricky and sometimes when the decision is finally made that it is time to hospitalize a patient, it’s sometimes too late.
So, it’s imperative for those that have schizophrenia patients as loved ones, to understand the warning signs for when hospitalization is needed: ¹³
- Intervention is always necessary in times of outward signs of violence, either towards themselves or to others around them. Self-harm or outward hostility is never a phase, a joke, or a passing fad. These are serious matters in the case of someone with a schizophrenia diagnosis.
- When a psychotic episode becomes overwhelming, specifically when the sufferer cannot differentiate between what is reality and what is fantasy. There are times when delusion, hallucination, or negative symptoms become burdensome. Sometimes the patient themselves feel they need medical attention or a caregiver or a loved one ascertains that that call needs to be made.
- In situations of substance abuse., schizophrenia can lead to patients utilizing substances like drugs or alcohol to absorb their problems or to “self-medicate” which can actually worsen the symptoms effects. When the intoxication gets out of hand, medical intervention can often be the only thing that can lead to a drop in dependency.
- Need to change medication, adjust the dosage of a medication, or is having a poor reaction from medication.
Schizophrenia can be a complicated condition, it shifts a state of being for the patient, throws off their connection with reality, and causes them to be ostracized by those around them. Understanding the signs and symptoms of schizophrenia can not only inform but also validate the experiences that those suffering silence might be having.
Communication is key and observation vital so that proper care and consideration can thrive for the patient and their loved ones. It is not only important for patients to become aware of their own conditions, but its also vital that friends, family, and loved ones become aware too because if we all have the knowledge then we can all be allies.
Do you still have questions about what the early signs of schizophrenia are?
We invite you to ask them in the comments section below. If you have any further knowledge to share – whether personal or professional – we’d also love to hear from you.
¹ National Institute of Mental Health: Schizophrenia – Signs & Symptoms
² Science Frontiers Organization: Primary and Secondary Negative Symptoms in Schizophrenia
³ Cedars Sinai: Schizophrenia in Young Children
⁴ National Health Services of Canada-Alberta: Schizophrenia in Your Teen
⁵ National Alliance on Mental Health: What’s Schizophrenia?
⁶ National Centers for Biotechnical Information: Age of Onset of Schizophrenia- Early-Onset/COS Studies
⁷ National Centers for Biotechnical Information: Substance abuse in patients with schizophrenia
⁸ National Centers for Biotechnical Information: The lifetime risk of suicide in schizophrenia
⁹ National Centers for Biotechnical Information: Schizophrenia in late life – The emerging issues
¹⁰ National Centers for Biotechnical Information: Depression and Risk of Developing Dementia
¹¹ National Centers for Biotechnical Information: Treating Older Adults With Schizophrenia: Challenges and Opportunities
¹² National Health Services UK: Diagnosing Schizophrenia
¹³ National Health Services of Canada-Alberta: Schizophrenia-When Hospital Care is Needed