One percent of Americans have schizophrenia, and a majority of them will receive a diagnosis before the age of 30.1 Schizophrenia can be a scary word to hear when you’re experiencing a mental health challenge. But advances in medication and treatment for schizophrenia have made living with schizophrenia easier and more manageable. With the right support, an individual with schizophrenia can live a full and healthy life, finding both meaningful work and relationships.

Getting a Diagnosis of Schizophrenia

If you report your symptoms to a doctor or another healthcare professional, they will likely refer you to a psychiatrist who can give you a diagnostic evaluation. The psychiatrist will review your medical record, ask you questions about current and past symptoms, and observe your functioning. They may also ask you about your family’s history of mental illness.

To receive a diagnosis of schizophrenia, you have to have experienced symptoms for more than a month. Symptoms can include:2

  • delusional thinking
  • hallucinations
  • disorganized speech or behaviors
  • poor hygiene
  • lack of interest in activities
  • lack of facial expressions

Your psychiatrist will also rule out other possible diagnoses, such as schizoaffective disorder or bipolar disorder, and make sure that the symptoms are not caused by drugs or other medical conditions.

When you receive a diagnosis of schizophrenia, your psychiatrist is likely to also prescribe you medication to begin treating symptoms. They will also refer you to a therapist or counselor for psychotherapy, or assign you to a treatment team who will oversee your care.

What to Expect from Your First Therapy Session

During your first therapy session after your diagnosis, you’ll likely have to answer questions about your symptoms and personal history. Part of a therapist’s job is to assess risk and make sure that you are safe and healthy as you engage in treatment.

Your first therapy session is also an opportunity for you to ask questions about your treatment and about the therapist. Your therapist should tell you what theory or techniques they use to work with their patients and inform you about their experience working with people living with schizophrenia. If you don’t feel a connection with your therapist, don’t hesitate to inquire about other therapists who might be a better fit for you.

During your first therapy session, you and your therapist should also outline a few goals that you’ll have for generally the first 3-6 months of treatment. Goals can include areas such as mental health, physical health, work, relationships, and other parts of life you’d like to improve. Share what progress or changes you’d like to see, and consider how you’d like to measure these goals along the way.

Accepting That You Need Help for Schizophrenia

Getting a diagnosis of schizophrenia can feel overwhelming for anyone. If you’ve managed your mental health on your own until now, it can be difficult to accept that you need a treatment team and medication to feel better. The sooner you get help for schizophrenia, the less likely you are to experience more serious symptoms and a steep decline in your mental and physical health.

If you’re experiencing symptoms, such as paranoia or other delusions, you might find that you feel suspicious of giving anyone personal information or taking medication that is unfamiliar to you. It’s your treatment team’s job to help you feel safe and heard, so never hesitate to express your concerns. Sometimes bringing along a loved one with you to appointments is helpful. That way you can ask questions and give your focus to the therapist. Have your family member or friend assist by taking notes you can review later if necessary.

It’s also important to keep taking medication when you feel better. Symptoms will return and likely worsen if you stop medication or do not take it as prescribed.  Stopping medication also puts you at risk for self-medicating with drugs or alcohol which can make your symptoms much worse.

How to Tell Others About Your Diagnosis

After you receive a diagnosis of schizophrenia, you may have fears or concerns about how others will react. The odds are that if your symptoms have gone untreated for some time, friends, family, and coworkers may already know that you are struggling with a mental health challenge.

While your health information—and conversations between you and your therapist—are private, having a solid support system can be an important part of treating schizophrenia successfully. For instance, friends and family who are made aware of the signs that your mental health is declining may be able to intervene in a way that can make it less likely for you to experience a severe relapse of symptoms. Your therapist can help you create a plan for communicating your diagnosis with loved ones and help you think about what information you’ll need to give your employer.

Handling the Stigma of Mental Illness

Though the public is becoming more educated in general about mental illness, stigma still exists when it comes to schizophrenia. Some believe that all people with schizophrenia are likely to be violent, or that they cannot hold steady employment. Or, they may believe that the behavior of a person with schizophrenia could change suddenly and unexpectedly. None of these myths are true, and educating yourself about the diagnosis can help you answer the questions of loved ones.

Joining a peer support group at your local community center or through your health care provider can also give you a space to share your frustrations about stigma and gain encouragement from others facing similar challenges. Never hesitate to share with your therapist your concerns about dealing with stigma.

Concerns You May Have About Medication

Medication is an important component of treating schizophrenia, but it’s common to have reservations or questions about taking psychiatric medications. It’s your psychiatrist’s job to help you find the best medication that works for you and also has the fewest side effects.

Atypical antipsychotics are the most commonly prescribed medications for schizophrenia, and they have a much lower risk of serious side effects than previous generations of antipsychotic medications.3

Your treatment team can also help you manage your medication and is available to listen to the feedback you have about side effects. Don’t be discouraged if it takes several tries before you find the right combination of medications to effectively treat symptoms as it can be different for everyone living with schizophrenia.

How to Help Yourself Outside of the Therapist’s Office

People with schizophrenia are at increased risk for premature death, and one of the reasons is that they tend to have poor lifestyle habits. They are less likely to exercise and eat healthfully and they are more likely to smoke and abuse substances. Weight gain can also be a side effect of certain medications.4

Talk to your doctor about how a healthy diet and exercise routine can improve your overall mood and decrease the possibility of a relapse of symptoms. Your therapist can also help you generate a list of healthy coping strategies which can boost energy level and mood. These might include:

  • Relaxation exercises (i.e. mindfulness techniques, yoga)
  • Engaging hobbies and interests
  • Spending time with friends and family
  • Attending a support group

Accommodations for Schizophrenia at School and Work

Once you receive a diagnosis of schizophrenia, you may be eligible for certain accommodations at your school or work.

For grades K-12, students with a  mental illness may be eligible for an Individualized Education Program (IEP) or a 504 plan that will provide accommodations to help them succeed.5

College, graduate school, or technical school students can apply through the organization’s version of the office of disability services to receive academic, residential, or other accommodations. People with schizophrenia may also qualify to receive mental health services on campus.

The Americans with Disabilities Act requires employers to make accommodations within reason for you to be able to perform your job. If you’re searching for employment, you may qualify to receive vocational rehabilitation services from your state agency.6

If you think you might have schizophrenia and are unsure of what to do, reach out to your doctor or a friend or family member and share your thinking with them. Together you can create a plan to get you the best support and treatment for you.

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Last Updated: Oct 1, 2018