Can Schizophrenia Be Prevented?

While we do not yet know how to prevent schizophrenia altogether, we are indeed able to intercept its early development in some people and significantly lessen its impact. This is an active and promising area of research that may represent the next significant advance in schizophrenia therapy. One of the challenges this approach presents is the need to identify and direct at-risk people to the mental health care system before symptoms develop.

Starting Before the Disease Strikes

Preventive care can be invaluable in conditions such as schizophrenia. As a caretaker, you are best placed to determine whether you or someone you know is at risk. You can seek preventive care even before symptoms appear. You can tap into the expertise of those who are investigating, treating, and trying to prevent schizophrenia in its earliest detectable form or forms.

Some Risk Factors for Schizophrenia

  • Family history

  • Having older parents

  • Maternal infections during pregnancy

  • Complications during pregnancy and delivery

  • Social adjustment problems in children and adolescents

  • Velo-cardio-facial syndrome (a genetic condition affecting facial appearance, heart function, and some gland development)

Adapted from “Considering Schizophrenia from a Prevention Perspective,” M.T. Compton. Published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, February 2004.

Medical researchers have already identified a likely biological basis for schizophrenia believing it may be possible to halt or slow mental deterioration produced by schizophrenia. The structural abnormalities present in the brains of some people with schizophrenia may change over time or may even be affected by treatment. It had been assumed that these abnormalities were established early in a patient's life, but recent long-term neuroimaging studies indicate that the brain changes may progress over time. This means it may be possible someday to intercede and slow — or even stop — the progressive changes with preventive and early care.

Advice for Someone at Risk of Developing Schizophrenia

Having a close relative with schizophrenia is a risk factor for developing the disease. Genetics, however, is not the same thing as fate. If one identical twin can be free of schizophrenia while the other has it, it is likely the twins have undergone significantly different experiences or environmental interactions. Some of these factors may have been encountered in the womb or shortly after birth, while others may have been encountered in childhood. Consequently, parents and future parents should practice the best prenatal and infant care they can.

Alert

If you have a family history of schizophrenia, you can take action to reduce your chances of being incapacitated by the disease. If you are worried, contact a mental health care clinic or early treatment center and get some advice. Read about steps you can take on sites such as Schizophrenia.com.

Many programs across the country are actively seeking young people with an elevated risk of developing schizophrenia to participate in innovative research programs aimed at preventing the emergence of the disease. Adolescents with a family history of schizophrenia can lower their risk by not using illegal drugs or abusing alcohol. People with a predisposition toward mental illness may be particularly susceptible to bad reactions to recreational drugs. Use of marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamines, hallucinogens, and other street drugs can accelerate or precipitate mental problems.

Other precautions include taking steps to counter the signs of negative symptoms of schizophrenia such as social withdrawal, lack of interests and ambition, and slow thought processes. Work at getting and keeping a network of healthy friendships. Try to be socially active, even more so than you are normally inclined to be. Read about different personalities and social interactions. Direct your attention outward toward others as much as you direct it inward toward yourself. If you find yourself spending a lot of time alone, change the pattern. Get out. Join clubs. Call someone you know.

Fact

Participating in different pastimes, hobbies, and other interests that stimulate your mind may help preserve mental function and foster social interaction. Consciously seek out positive events, milestones, and accomplishments that are not featured at the top of the news hour or on the front page.

Mastering stress will benefit you. Use physical activity, meditation, yoga, and recreation to reduce stress. Competitive sports are fine, and you don't need to be a good athlete to participate. You can also be athletic without competing by participating in individual sports in which you try to improve your past performance rather than try to defeat an opponent. Exercise eases stress. If you feel anxious, learn about anxiety and how to offset its effects on you.

Seek help at the first sign of mental distress, including depression and anxiety. If you ever feel that life is getting to be too much or things are piling up on you, talk to a competent professional. It is not a sign of weakness; it is a sign of intelligence and a sign that you are in control.

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