Updated on May 31, 2022
Schizophrenia is a chronic, debilitating psychiatric disorder that is not commonly diagnosed in children under 12 years old. Although it is possible to develop symptoms of schizophrenia at any age, the National Alliance on Mental Illness reports that schizophrenia is typically diagnosed in older teens and in adults in their late 20s and early 30s.
Teens with schizophrenia present a particular challenge to adolescent psychiatrists due to their young age and developmental characteristics. Schizophrenia treatment for teens should involve residential treatment and medication until the teen begins responding consistently to medication and therapy.
Early Signs of Schizophrenia: Recognizing Symptoms of Schizophrenia in Teenagers
In most cases of teens with schizophrenia, symptoms are not obvious to parents and teachers until the teen is around 14 or 15. For reasons not yet known, schizophrenia tends to affect middle-school-aged boys more than girls of the same age. However, schizophrenia impacts both male and female teenagers over the age of 16 and young adults equally.
Signs of schizophrenia can emerge suddenly or gradually. Early symptoms may resemble shyness, introversion, or moodiness. Worsening symptoms usually involve:
- Insisting odd or confused thoughts about reality are true
- Difficulty distinguishing movies, video games, or their own dreams from reality
- Hearing voices (auditory hallucinations are more common in teens with schizophrenia than adults with schizophrenia)
- Belief or fear that something or someone is going to hurt them, read their thoughts, control their movements, etc. (paranoid schizophrenia is more frequently diagnosed in older adults than adolescents)
- Presenting a “flat affect” when talking to others (lack of emotion or expression)
- Academic difficulties
- Behavioral regression (for example, a 15-year-old may start acting like a three-year-old)
- Standing or sitting in one place for a long time without saying or doing anything (catatonia)
Early-onset schizophrenia may be misdiagnosed as ADHD, ADD, or another mental illness that more commonly affects teenagers. If a parent suspects their teen may have a serious mental health disorder, they should have their child evaluated by a psychiatrist specializing in teens with schizophrenia before starting treatment.
What Causes Schizophrenia? Are Some Teens More at Risk for Schizophrenia Than Other Teens?
According to decades of research, genes, environmental factors, and excess dopamine in the brain are the primary causes of schizophrenia. Studies indicate that if a parent has schizophrenia, there is a six to 17 percent chance that one or more of their children could develop schizophrenia. However, just because a child carries the gene for schizophrenia doesn’t mean they will inevitably need schizophrenia treatment for teens.
In addition to genetics, researchers have found other risk factors that increase the probability of schizophrenia in teens and young adults. Specifically, experiencing stress during childhood seems to negatively interact with genes coded for schizophrenia.
This stress could be in the form of neglect, abuse, socioeconomic issues (living in poverty, for example), moving frequently (changing schools often), or the death of a parent or guardian. Teens at risk for schizophrenia who start abusing drugs or alcohol at an early age may even damage their brains structurally to the point where they show prematurely severe symptoms of schizophrenia.
Dopamine, Serotonin, and Schizophrenia
Like adults with schizophrenia, teens with schizophrenia have abnormally high levels of the neurotransmitter-hormone dopamine in certain areas of their brains. Essential for regulating motivation, attention, memory, motor control, and cognition, dopamine is thought to be largely responsible for the positive symptoms of schizophrenia (hallucinations, agitation, delusions, incoherent speech).
Alternately, serotonin is now recognized as another neurotransmitter that causes negative symptoms of schizophrenia (flat affect, showing no emotion, remaining statue-like for long periods).
Older medications for schizophrenia blocked only dopamine receptors in the brain to reduce dopamine levels and positive symptoms. The newer antipsychotic drugs, such as Clozapine and Risperidone, stabilize levels of both dopamine and serotonin to treat positive and negative symptoms of schizophrenia.
Although recently developed antipsychotic medications are much more effective at treating schizophrenia, they must be taken as prescribed without interruption. Missing just one dose of antipsychotic medication can cause teens with schizophrenia to start experiencing symptoms again.
Advantages of residential treatment for teens with schizophrenia involve medication management and 24/7 access to counselors and psychiatrists specializing in early-onset schizophrenia.
As soon as a teen is admitted to a residential treatment center, they are evaluated for symptom severity, physical health, and other factors that contribute to the development of an individualized therapeutic program.
Teens and young adults who are recovering from acute mental illness episodes would benefit from living temporarily in a supportive and structured environment. Establishing daily routines, receiving empathetic counseling from trained therapists, and learning about their mental illness are the best methods for regaining and maintaining their mental health and quality of life.
Additionally, residential schizophrenia treatment for teens allows them to share their unique challenges with other teens who understand what they are experiencing as someone with schizophrenia.
The Importance of Taking Antipsychotic Medication
Like other serious mental illnesses, schizophrenia cannot be “cured” but it can be successfully managed with medication, continuing support services, and counseling. What frequently happens to people taking medications for schizophrenia is that they stop taking medications due to side effects.
Within the first few weeks of taking antipsychotic prescriptions, teens usually start feeling drowsy, nauseous, and dizzy. Dry mouth, heart palpitations, general restlessness, migraines, and skin rash are other side effects of schizophrenia medications.
However, when teens with schizophrenia stop taking their medication, symptoms will return in as little as two days. Residential treatment centers ensure teens adhere to their medication schedule by allocating meds individually.
Hospital Psychiatric Wards
Although most large hospitals devote one or two floors to patients experiencing acute psychotic episodes, they do not provide long-term care for serious mental illnesses. In most cases, a person who is actively hallucinating or suffering from paranoid delusions may be admitted by law enforcement when they are a danger to themselves or others.
Once that person is stabilized, however, the hospital usually releases the individual with information about where to get outpatient psychiatric services. When continuing care is left up to the patient’s discretion, they often do not follow up on recommendations.
The best and most successful schizophrenia treatment for teens involves residential treatment centers that can provide 24/7 support, medication monitoring, a structured environment, and continuing care essential for lifelong management of schizophrenia.
Learn more about how to get help for teens with schizophrenia by contacting us today.