What Is Psychosis?
‘Psychosis’ is an illness that usually starts around ages 12 to 25. Researchers think that it is caused by genetics, environmental exposure to toxins, or both. Seeing or hearing things that are not there, believing what seems odd or untrue, or feeling confused when trying to think or speak are some of the ways this illness can make life difficult.
There are a lot more people than you think that that have had symptoms of psychosis. In fact, 10% to 25% of young people report that they have experienced at least one in their lifetime. More and more people that have these experiences are getting help early so that they can continue to hang out with friends, go out on dates, raise kids, and find work they want to do. These individuals manage their symptoms well and do not wait to get help when they see early signs of a developing problem, such as…
· Hearing or seeing things that are not really there
· Believing things that may not be true (like: “the
FBI is watching me”)
· Having jumbled thoughts or words so that it is hard to talk
· Difficulty paying attention
· Difficulty telling the difference between what is real or unreal
· Suddenly struggling with school or work that used to be easy
· Feeling uncomfortable around friends you used to hang out with
· Avoiding family and people that you were normally close to
· Big changes in how you dress, bathe, or groom yourself
· Losing interest in the things you used to do with
friends (e.g., movies, sports, shopping)
· Picking up new, perhaps unusual interests that you do alone
What Psychosis is Not
Unfortunately, a lot of people misunderstand the meaning of the word ‘psychosis’. Too many movies use the word to describe people that are scary looking, dangerous, or constantly changing their personalities! This is frustrating for people who actually have psychosis because movies mostly get it all wrong. People with psychosis
· Do not look a certain way
· Are no more dangerous than anyone else
· Do not have multiple personalities
Unfortunately, people tend to believe what they see in the movies because they have never actually met someone with psychosis. When they do meet a real person with real experience, they are often surprised to find someone who looks normal and likes to do the things that most people like to do, such as going shopping, playing sports, eating good food, and being with friends. Like most people, they also tend to like being respected and accepted for who they are.
Here are two examples of real people that have lived with psychosis and successfully managed it.
Erica is 35 years old and works as a journalist for a newspaper website called MailOnline. Her passions are swimming, going on walks, and spending time with her partner. Her favorite things to write about are fashion and travel.
When Erica was 19, she began having strange worries that people were trying to spy on her. This belief became so intense that she could no longer write, think, or be around her friends. Eventually, her mother took her to a psychiatrist, who recommended rest and some medicine to address what appeared to be early symptoms of psychosis. Erica followed the psychiatrist’s advice. Most importantly, she took some time off and gave herself time to reboot.
With the support of close friends, and especially her mother, Erica was back to writing for fashion magazines and travel logs within a year. This time, she had a new favorite topic: the need for public understanding of psychosis. Today, Erica uses her talents as a successful journalist to advocate for people with serious mental illness. You can find out more about her at https://ericacamus.wordpress.com/.
Michael Hedrick is 29 years old. He is a novelist, who writes regularly for the New York Times on the topics of mental illness and wellness. Michael attended the University of Colorado at Boulder from 2004 to 2006, and still lives in Boulder where one of his favorite pasttimes is hiking in the surrounding woods.
Michael first noticed himself becoming suspicious of his friends and what they thought of him when he was 20 years old. That same year, he began smoking marijuana and drinking heavily to drown out voices in his head that were telling him that he was a bad person. Later that year, he became convinced that he had a plan for world peace and traveled all the way to the United Nations to annnounce his plan to foreign diplomats. When he arrived in New York he found the UN closed and ended up being homeless.
Michael’s turning point came a few years later when he was picked up for a DUI. The experience convinced him to make some serious changes. He gave up drugs, began eating better, improving his sleep routine, and started taking medicine on a consistent basis.
Importantly, Michael also started reaching out to people at a local coffee house, where he made a few friends, and even risked dating again. Michael’s writings about life as a young man dealing with psychosis and social life have made him a popular read on the internet. You can find out more about him at http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/author/michael-hedrick/
Getting an Assessment
Telling someone you trust and getting assessed
Having early signs of psychosis (see above) does not mean actually having early psychosis. The next step after signs is getting an assessment, which means needing to tell someone what you are experiencing.
A good first step to getting assessed is to tell someone you trust what is going on. Talking out loud about your experiences for the first time can be challenging, but it releases you from the burden of having to deal with these experiences alone. The first person you tell could be a family member, friend, coworker, or neighbor. The important thing is to ask yourself…
· Who listens when I speak?
· Who is easy to talk to?
· Who has helped me before?
· Who stays calm when there is a problem?
Once you have told someone what is going on, ask them to help you connect with an expert who can talk to you in more detail. This could be with your regular doctor, a counselor, a social worker, a psychologist or a psychiatrist.
Important note: Keep in mind that when you talk to a professional, everything you say is confidential and cannot get back to your family, school or employer unless you give signed permission to allow it. The only exception to this rule is if you tell the professional during the interview that you were once a child victim of unreported abuse or are now seriously thinking of hurting yourself or someone else. In these cases professionals are actually required by law to share your identity and any information that will keep you and the community safe from harm, but that is the only time.
Frequently Asked Questions
If you have already been diagnosed with a mental illness that includes symptoms of psychosis, you are probably thinking about what effect this will have on your life going forward. Here are some answers to questions young adults commonly ask when dealing with the ultimate question of: “What does this all mean for me?”
1. What does this mean for school or my job?
If you are having trouble concentrating at school or on the job, and find it more difficult to accomplish your daily goals, it may mean that you are showing early signs of psychosis. The sooner you tell someone you trust and get checked out by a professional, the quicker you will get better. Putting off the visit to a counselor may allow time for things to get worse.
It is okay to need time off from school or work, especially if your symptoms are overwhelming and interfere with your functioning. A great idea is to take time off to learn about your illness and learn how to cope with the changes you are experiencing in your body and mind.
Find out how you can get time off from school by talking to your parent(s), a school counselor, or a professor you trust. Many times, schools will make allowances for work to be turned in at a later date, especially if the student is sick in any way that interferes with their ability to focus on classroom lectures and homework assignments.
If you work, go to the Human Resources Department at your workplace, ask how you can get time off, and take it! Get the help you need, and then see when it would be a good time to go back to work. If you are struggling with an illness, it will be much harder to meet expectations in the workplace.
2. Does this mean I have to go live at home or in a home?
No, having signs of psychosis does not mean that you have to live at home or in a home, but these might be options you want to consider, even if just for a little while. Consider how you are going to be able to pay for a place to live, especially if you are taking time off from work. If your family members or other community members can help you out, why not consider this a possibility? This way, you would be able to save money, and if you tend to isolate, being around others may help you get better faster. Being alone is okay sometimes, but being alone too much can have a negative impact on your mental health.
3. What does this mean for my partner? Should I still be thinking of having children?
You and your partner will both benefit from learning all you can about mental illness involving psychosis. The more both of you know, the better supports you can be for each other and for your children.
Also, having psychosis does not mean that you cannot have children, but you should still plan ahead. If you are still having a lot of symptoms and stress, this may not be good for a child in utero. Stress creates a hormone called cortisol, which is not good for babies during their development.
If your symptoms are under control, and you want children, then you can have them, but make sure you talk to your doctor first! You will definitely want to learn about what kind of medicines you are taking and what effect they might have on pregnancy. Some medicines are gentle, but some others may be known to cause birth defects, so make sure you plan ahead, and talk to your doctor about what you can do to have a happy and healthy pregnancy.
4. What do I tell friends?
Telling friends can be challenging because some friends will be trustworthy and supportive, while other may not be. Use your judgment when talking to friends about your illness. At first, you may feel the need to tell your friends everything, but you might consider that it is better not to tell everything to everybody. Tell people about it on a need to know basis.
When you have learned some coping skills, it could be very positive to teach your trustworthy friends how they can be supportive. Friends can be supportive by listening without judging, or calling a parent or counselor if they do not know what to do.
5. Is this progressive? Will it get worse?
There is no way to predict the exact course of your illness, because as scientists, we do not yet have enough information to make these judgments. It is possible that your illness could get worse, but not necessarily. The best thing you can do for yourself is get help early. Our early intervention project is designed to prevent the worsening of symptoms by help you early in the stages of illness.
6. Will I have this forever?
Again, there is no way to predict the exact trajectory of your symptoms. For some people, this is a one-time deal, and others continue to cope and manage any residual symptoms that do not go away completely with treatment, either with medication, therapy, or both. Have hope! Many people in the world function in school and at a job, even if they have symptoms of psychosis. Some people have symptoms, but if they did not tell you about it, you may never know. It is entirely possible to live a happy and fulfilling life, in the midst of dealing with the symptoms of a mental illness. The most important thing you can do to prevent long term challenges is to get the help you need early in the onset of your illness.
Center for Early Detection, Assessment & Response to Risk