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Causes of Schizophrenia

Schizophrenia tends to run in families. If one member of a pair of identical twins becomes schizophrenic, there is a 28% likelihood that the other will become schizophrenic (Torrey, Bowler, Taylor, & Gottesman, 1994). In one famous case, four quintuplets all became schizophrenic, one after another. However, there are enough cases in which one identical twin becomes schizophrenic and the other does not become schizophrenic—72% of the total—to show that more than genes are involved.

What is evidence of a genetic component in schizophrenia? What is evidence that genes alone do not cause the disease? What did Jortner maintain, based on 30 years of experience?

While most experts regard schizophrenia as a brain disease, they also recognize that the brain is affected by experiences such as stress. Some psychologists argue that environmental influences on the development of schizophrenia can be quite strong. For example, Jortner (1990) wrote that his 30 years of experience with schizophrenics convinced him that "families can indeed be pathogenic" (crazy-making). He noted that sometimes when family problems are corrected "the formerly mentally or emotionally ill patient can become well enough to hold a job, socialize, and function relatively normally."

In some cases families are not "pathogenic." In some cases they are pillars of strength in a schizophrenic's life. Sometimes family love is the schizophrenic person's reason for living and staying as normal as possible.

One student writes about what it was like to have a schizophrenic mother:

Voices from Within

A woman who hears voices and sees spirits raised me. She spends her days following a simple routine of washing clothes, cooking and maintaining the tidiness of the household. Unlike many schizophrenics, my mother tried to control her illness so it would not cause her children harm. But while she protected us from physical harm, the emotional and psychological pain my sister and I suffered will remain with us forever.

What was the student's experience with a schizophrenic mother?

I have learned so much about this mental illness which causes its victims to suffer disturbances in speech or thought, inappropriate or blunted affect, hallucinations and delusions. Based on personal experience with my mother, I would say that some schizophrenics function well in stress-free surroundings. But my mother cannot withstand stressful situations. She becomes confused and her speech sounds choppy. It is like she goes into a zombie stage where she doesn't respond to conversational responses. Painted on her face is a portrait of a beautiful woman trapped in another world. Misery and unhappiness seep from her if I try to talk to her in an attempt to keep her in my world.

During one severe episode, she sensed I was afraid. My mother was running frantically around the house trying to get my sister and me to leave because "the voices said they were going to kill us." My sister and I refused because we were determined to show her that voices in her head could not harm us. My mom became hysterical. She broke glasses, began screaming and caused a lot of chaos. I was scared. I thought that finally she had completely converted over and was never coming back. But to my surprise, in a calm voice she said, "Mommy will never hurt you, baby." I didn't know what to say. But I believed her, and she did not hurt me. She has never hurt me intentionally. After that episode, I went to my room and cried silently and went to sleep.

From my experiences, I have learned that I cannot change or correct her illness. Since college I have learned more about the scientific details of the illness. I have also learned that I am not alone. Knowledge of the abnormality makes it easier to cope and encourages me to be more sensitive to the needs of my mother.

What role does the student play in her mother's life?

I am confident that somewhere inside my mother's mind she is normal and seeks to have a normal life. Patience and compassion play a significant role in maintaining a semi-stable environment for my family. Schizophrenics do not handle drastic changes well, so my sister and I try to minimize the occurrence of change. Although I regret that my mother depends so heavily on my sister and me, it is our duty to protect her by any means necessary so she can continue to live comfortably at our home where she belongs. [Author's files]

What does it mean to call schizophrenia "recurrent and disabling?"

Historically, there has been no effective treatment for schizophrenia. The disorder has been described as recurrent and disabling. Recurrent means it tends to come back again and again. Disabling means that some people with the disorder eventually lose their ability to cope with normal life.

Why is there real hope for better treatments?

Recently, medications for the disorder have been improving. One medication in particular, Clozapine, has enabled some schizophrenics to return to a near-normal mental state after decades of disability. Clozapine targets a variety of the neurotransmitter dopamine—the D4 type—which is concentrated in areas of the brain most affected by schizophrenia (Taubes, 1994). Because a variety of evidence links schizophrenia to neurotransmitter imbalances in the brain, there is real hope that treatments for schizophrenia will improve in the future as scientific knowledge about the brain increases.

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Copyright © 2007-2011 Russ Dewey