Can We Prevent Schizophrenia? The Promise of Early Identification and Treatment


What Is Schizophrenia?

Schizophrenia is one of the most challenging mental illnesses in terms of its impact on people’s lives, and finding effective treatments.  It affects about 1% of Americans, and affects men and women equally.  Symptoms of schizophrenia are typically grouped into different categories.  These include:
  • Positive symptoms, such as the presence of hallucinations (hearing or seeing things not seen by others), delusions (false belief systems such as the idea that one’s thoughts are being stolen), or disorganized behavior.
  • Negative symptoms such as lack of emotional reactions, lack of interest in planning activities, or minimal speaking and talking.
  • Cognitive symptoms such as difficulty using information to make decisions, or poor ability to pay attention and concentrate.
When Does the Onset of Schizophrenia Usually Occur?
The typical age of onset of clear symptoms of schizophrenia is between the ages of 16 and 30.  However the early signs of schizophrenia often appear before the disorder can be clearly identified.  Thus, significant efforts are being made to improve early detection of schizophrenia and related psychotic disorders. 
Early Warning Signs:  The early warning signs of schizophrenia usually occur during the early teenage years.  They include:
  • an increase in unusual thoughts and suspicions
  • change of friends
  • a drop in grades
  • sleep problems
  • irritability
However, many of these signs are relatively common in teenagers, as part of normal development or as part of other mental health problems, such as depression.  Thus, the mental health field is still trying to develop more reliable methods of early detection of schizophrenia.  Right now, about 70% of youth identified as high risk for schizophrenia go on to actually develop a psychotic disorder.
Can We Prevent Schizophrenia and Psychosis?
For those people at highest risk for schizophrenia, mental health researchers are working to identify treatments and interventions which might prevent the illness from occurring at all, or at least minimizing its impact.  Our understanding of how to prevent schizophrenia from developing in those at high risk is still in its very early stages.  Some of the ideas for preventing schizophrenia include:
  • Omega-3 fatty acids: Some very preliminary research suggests that increasing the intake of these acids may help prevent the onset of psychosis.  Larger studies attempting to verify early findings are underway.
  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy: Targeted psychotherapy designed to help people at high risk identify warning signs and change behaviors associated with schizophrenia are also being studied in large scale trials.
  • Family and patient education:  Helping family members and patients learn about the typical symptoms of schizophrenia often helps get people into treatment more quickly.
  • Antipsychotic Medications:  The use of antipsychotic or antidepressant medicines has not been shown to significantly help people at high risk.  However, very little research in this area has occurred.
For More Information:
National Institute of Mental Health (Directors Blog):
National Alliance on Mental Illness:
American Psychological Association Topics