Schizophrenia is one of the most complex of all mental health disorders. It involves a severe, chronic and disabling disturbance of the brain. What once was classified as a psychological disease now is classified as a brain disease.

Even though schizo- does mean “split,” people who have schizophrenia do not have a split personality. But schizophrenia may be viewed as a person’s split from reality.

Symptoms include delusions (“Someone’s putting thoughts in my head”), paranoia (“They’re out to get me”), hallucinations (hearing voices), emotional flatness and trancelike behavior.

Causes of schizophrenia

There is no known single cause responsible for schizophrenia. It is believed that a chemical imbalance in the brain – too much dopamine – is an inherited factor that may cause schizophrenia to develop. However, it is likely that many factors – genetic, behavioral and environmental – play a role in the development of this mental health condition. One theory is that a virus may get transmitted to the fetus before birth.

Schizophrenia risk factors

Schizophrenia affects 2.2 million Americans over age 18, and they’re typically diagnosed in early adulthood. There is no hint that anything is wrong through childhood and adolescence; symptoms often begin to appear after the young person leaves home.

The condition affects males and females about equally, although symptoms often appear a few years later for women than for men. In most cases, schizophrenia first appears in men during their late teens or early 20s. In women, schizophrenia often first appears during their 20s or early 30s.

A child born into a family with one or more schizophrenic family member has a greater chance for developing schizophrenia than a child born into a family with no history of schizophrenia.

After a person has been diagnosed with schizophrenia in a family, the chance for a sibling to also be diagnosed with schizophrenia is 7 to 8 percent. If a parent has schizophrenia, the chance for a child to have the disorder is 10 to 15 percent. Risks increase with multiple affected family members.

People with schizophrenia are at an especially high risk of suicide. About 10 percent die by suicide, especially young adult males. It’s hard to predict which people with schizophrenia are prone to suicide. Anyone who has suicidal feelings, talks about suicide or attempts suicide should be taken seriously and should receive immediate help from a mental health specialist.