Everything You Need to Know About Schizophrenia In Kids

While schizophrenia is relatively uncommon in teens, young adults can be diagnosed. Here's everything you need to know about this mental health condition.

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Photo: Photo Illustration: Alex Sandoval

Schizophrenia is a serious mental health disorder that can affect anyone—regardless of sex, gender, ethnicity, or age. And while it is not as common as anxiety or depression, millions of people have this condition. According to the World Health Organization, 24 million people, or 1 in 300, are schizophrenic.

That said, it's uncommon for young children to be diagnosed. The average onset age for schizophrenia is sometime between the late teen years and early 30s. But on rare occasions, kids and teens can be affected. So what does this schizophrenia look like in children? What are the signs of schizophrenia in teens?

Below is everything you need to know about schizophrenia, from what it is to the causes, diagnosis, and treatment.

What Is Schizophrenia?

"Schizophrenia is a chronic mental health disorder that affects how a person feels, thinks, and behaves," explains the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). "The condition causes people to shift back and forth between reality and their distorted perceptions of reality." It can affect their thought patterns and behaviors, and people living with schizophrenia typically experience visual and/or auditory hallucinations. Confusion is also common, as are jumbled thought patterns and speaking.

"Schizophrenia is a type of mental illness that may cause distressing problems with thoughts (paranoid ideas), perceptional experiences ('hearing voices' when alone), communication (disorganized speech), and behavior (agitated or disorganized)," adds Gloria Reeves, M.D., a child and adolescent psychiatrist with the University of Maryland Medical Center. "Additionally, individuals with schizophrenia may become withdrawn and/or have a marked decline in social and academic/vocational functioning."

What Causes Schizophrenia to Develop, Particularly In Teens?

The causes of schizophrenia are unknown and unclear. "We are still researching and learning a lot about what causes schizophrenia," says Dr. Reeves.

That said, there are some suspected factors. "Schizophrenia is considered to be a brain disease and it may run in families," she adds. "But the risk of schizophrenia is also influenced by life experiences." Those who have survived traumatic experiences, for example, are particularly vulnerable to this condition.

What Are the Signs of Schizophrenia in Children, Teens, and Young Adults?

The symptoms of schizophrenia vary from person-to-person and case-to-case. They may also change over time. Still, there are some common signs and symptoms, according to the AAP—particularly of schizophrenia in teens, tweens, and young adults.

Early Schizophrenia Symptoms:

  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Confused thoughts or speech
  • Having trouble in school
  • Withdrawing from family and friends
  • Increased isolation
  • Persistent anxiety and/or fear
  • Mood instability
  • Not being able to tell the difference between reality, TV, and dreams

Later Signs of Schizophrenia:

  • Unpredictable and/or erratic behavior
  • Lack of eye contact
  • Unresponsive to others
  • Disorganized thinking
  • Hallucinations
  • Visualizations
  • Delusions

"Teenagers with schizophrenia are frequently identified because of a combination of both symptoms and a decrease in functioning, i.e. social withdrawal or poor grades," adds Dr. Reeves.

How Is Schizophrenia Diagnosed?

If you're concerned your child is exhibiting some of the signs of schizophrenia, you should speak to their pediatrician. "[Your child's doctor] can rule out other causes of your child's symptoms like another mental illness, a medical condition, or drug or alcohol use," says the AAP.

If other conditions or reasons for their behavior have been ruled out, your next move is to enlist the help of a mental health professional. "While there is no blood test, x-ray, or questionnaire that can definitively diagnosis schizophrenia, qualified professionals can diagnose this condition, with time and the proper tools," says Dr. Reeves. "Diagnosis of schizophrenia is determined through clinical interview of the youth and family, medical evaluation of the teenager, and review of information provided by collateral informants, i.e. teachers and pediatricians. A clinician may also order biologic tests or formal psychological evaluations to screen for alternative medical causes of symptoms and/or to characterize the severity of symptoms."

How Is Schizophrenia Treated In Teens?

If your child is diagnosed with schizophrenia, don't worry: There is both help and hope. With medication and therapy, the symptoms of schizophrenia can be managed. That said, having realistic expectations is important— know that people with schizophrenia need treatment for the rest of their life.

The foundation of schizophrenia treatment for youth is antipsychotic medications, according to the AAP. These medicines can help with psychotic symptoms, like hallucinations and delusions. They can also keep visualizations at bay. Psychotherapy is another instrumental part of your child's treatment. This is usually done with a professional, preferably one with experience treating youths with schizophrenia.

However, treating your child is one piece of the puzzle. Creating a healthy and supportive environment is key. "The best thing families can do to support youth with schizophrenia is to seek help and information as soon problems emerge," says Dr. Reeves. "Early intervention for schizophrenia can result in the best long-term trajectory for recovery. Other priorities are to help the teenager stay on track with typical developmental activities like going to school, seeing friends, and to get family education and support to understand their child's condition and support their child's recovery."

"Schizophrenia is typically a chronic illness," she adds. "But individuals who receive the treatment and care they need are capable of achieving common teenager milestones—such as dating, getting a first job, and getting accepted into college, as well as their own personal goals."

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