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What is schizophrenia?

Schizophrenia is a mental health condition that can cause teenagers and young adults to lose touch with reality. They see, hear or believe things that aren’t real or true. This is called psychosis. People with schizophrenia think and act in ways that don’t make sense to other people. Many people with schizophrenia think that someone or something is reading their mind or trying to hurt them. These false beliefs are called paranoid delusions. Some also see things that aren’t there, which are called hallucinations.

Schizophrenia is very rare in young children, but they can show some early signs. It is more often diagnosed in teenagers and young adults.

What are the symptoms of schizophrenia?

Kids with schizophrenia have strange thoughts and behaviors. Some signs include: 

  • Ideas that don’t make sense  
  • Believing things that aren’t true 
  • Seeing, hearing or feeling things that aren’t there 
  • Seeming distracted 
  • Speaking in ways that other people can’t understand 
  • Thinking that others want to hurt them  
  • Hearing voices that tell them what to do 
  • Thinking strangers know them or are talking about them  
  • Believing that TV shows are sending them special messages 
  • Trouble with regular tasks, such as eating, bathing and going to school 
  • Withdrawing from friends and family 
  • Not showing a lot of feelings 
  • Moving around way too much or way too little 

How is schizophrenia diagnosed?

Before diagnosing schizophrenia, a mental health professional will rule out other possible causes of the strange thoughts and behavior. This includes drug or alcohol abuse, medical issues and other mental health problems. Kids are only diagnosed with schizophrenia if they have had symptoms for at least six months. The symptoms also have to interfere with their regular lives. 

It can be hard to tell schizophrenia apart from other mental health disorders. Sometimes, kids with schizophrenia are incorrectly diagnosed with conduct disorder because their delusions make them behave aggressively. It’s important to get a thorough assessment that looks closely at the child’s physical and mental health, as well as their family history. 

What are the risk factors for schizophrenia?

Children are more likely to have schizophrenia if someone in their family has it or if there were problems during pregnancy or at birth. However, most children with these risk factors don’t have schizophrenia.  

How is schizophrenia treated?

Schizophrenia is usually treated with therapy and medication.  

The recommended treatment is a special program called Coordinated Specialty Care. This should be done in the first two or three years after the child shows signs of schizophrenia. It can decrease symptoms in the future by a lot and help with many of the problems linked to this illness. 

Coordinated Specialty Care teaches kids how to deal with their symptoms. It also helps them build a group of people who can help them. The treatment includes: 

  • Low doses of antipsychotic medication 
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy for psychosis (CBTp) 
  • Family education and support 
  • Learning skills for school and work 

Risk for other disorders

Children with schizophrenia are at risk of developing other disorders, including: 

  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)  
  • Depression  
  • Panic disorder  
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)  
  • Problems with drugs or alcohol, which can make symptoms of schizophrenia worse  
This guide was last reviewed or updated on December 12, 2023.