Understanding Psychosis

The word “psychotic” is perhaps one of the most misunderstood words in the mental health repertoire. To the public, who are used to hearing it in movies and other media to refer to a violent, remorseless, person, attribute it’s meaning to just that. Someone who is psychotic, by this definition, may be violent, violently “crazy”, or simply lacking empathy and remorse, capable of any wrong and evil doing. But, as so often is the case, Hollywood and the media have gotten it wrong, and in the case of psychosis, they’ve gotten it completely and dangerously wrong. This incorrect usage has led to irreparable stigma for those suffering from actual psychosis, the sufferers of which are far more likely to be victims than perpetrators of violent crime. In this article I will tell you, dear reader, about the real story of psychosis.

According to NAMI, psychosis occurs in about 3% of the population. Psychosis is a debilitating mental condition that affects the way we perceive reality. In a way, people undergoing a psychotic episode live in an “alternate reality”, different from what healthy people experience. They may believe, perceive, and understand things that are not actually in existence, to the sufferer however, this “alternate reality” is as real as the ground beneath our feet.

What is Psychosis?

Psychosis is often called a “break from reality” due to the reasons I described above. There are hallmark symptoms of psychosis that healthcare providers look for when diagnosing a person, such as…

Hallucinations: Seeing, feeling, tasting, and especially hearing things that are not actually there. The most common hallucination is auditory hallucinations, or “voices”. The voices may tell a person to harm themselves and say other negative things.

Delusions: Strong beliefs that do not change despite opposing evidence. For example, a person may believe that someone is stealing their thoughts, that they are being watched or followed, or that they are God.

Causes

Psychosis, like so many things having to do with the mind, is  hard to pin down to a single cause. There are several, intermingling factors that affect someone’s likelihood of developing psychosis.

Drugs: Psychedelic drugs, or even lighter drugs like marijuana, have been shown to trigger or worsen psychotic episodes.

Genetics: Many studies have been carried out that link psychosis and other mental illnesses to genetics. If your parents, family, or siblings have experienced psychosis, you are more likely to experience it.

Illness: Some illnesses and diseases, such as brain cancer, can cause psychosis, or what appears to be psychosis, in a person.

Stress: Stress and trauma can bring on or worsen psychosis.

Warning Signs

There are several early warning signs for psychosis which can be noticed by others, they include the following…

  • Difficulty in school or work
  • Isolation from others
  • Decline in personal hygiene
  • Lack of clear or coherent thoughts

Psychosis and Mental Illness

Psychosis itself is not a mental illness. It is, however, a component, or possible component, of many mental illnesses. It should then, be seen as a symptom rather than an illness. Many illnesses can include psychosis, including post traumatic stress disorder, depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia, the last of which has psychosis as a hallmark symptom.

Treatments

Treatment is paramount for those suffering from an acute psychotic episode. There are a variety of treatments for psychosis, some of which I shall list  below.

Hospitalization: For someone undergoing an acute psychotic episode, the hospital may be the best option. The goal of any psychiatric hospital is to stabilize and rehabilitate enough so that a person may undergo further treatment after discharge.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT): CBT is used in a variety of disorders to identify and change thought patterns. In psychosis, CBT can help a person identify triggers, manage symptoms, and identify strategies for getting through it all.

Medication: Medication for psychosis is referred to as antipsychotics, these drugs work by reducing dopamine (a neurotransmitter involved in psychosis) in the brain. While often effective, they can have detrimental side effects. Newer antipsychotics however, called atypical, have less side effects and are more tolerable to take than older drugs.

To Wrap it Up…

Psychosis is a serious mental condition that requires care as soon as possible. Unfortunately, it is also one of the most misunderstood mental conditions in our society today. This makes reaching out for help difficult for those who suffer, the stigma is real and is felt by sufferers every time they turn on the TV to a headline of “psychotic killer”. As someone who has experienced psychosis first-hand, I can tell you that getting help is possible, and it does help…it saved my life.

If you believe you or someone you know is undergoing a psychotic episode, please reach out for professional help, it will improve your life tenfold, and may just save it. Some crisis numbers can be found here.

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