A diagnosis of schizophrenia can often result in feelings of confusion and fear. Knowing what to do in the weeks following a diagnosis can seem like a mystery, but it does not have to be. Understanding schizophrenia may help an individual recently diagnosed feel empowered to navigate potential treatment options. Finding appropriate medical attention, creating a supportive social network, and changing a few lifestyle choices will serve as positive coping mechanisms.
Accessing Medical Treatment
A diagnosis of schizophrenia comes hand-in-hand with a plethora of new language to learn. Negative and positive symptoms, delusions, hallucinations, the list goes on. Luckily, there are several medical and mental health professionals who can help explain these new definitions. In particular, a psychiatrist and a counselor may be essential for successful treatment.
A psychiatrist is a medical doctor who specializes in mental health disorders. For individuals diagnosed with schizophrenia, a psychiatrist helps navigate potential medication treatments. Medication is often the treatment used for controlling delusions, hallucinations, and bizarre thinking. Those newly diagnosed with schizophrenia will be introduced to a number of options, which can be overwhelming. There are two basic categories of antipsychotic medications used to treat schizophrenia: typical and atypical. Typical antipsychotics are very effective with reducing positive symptoms (i.e., delusions, hallucinations, bizarre thinking and behavior); however, are not without side effects. One side effect is extrapyramidal signs (EPS), which results in feeling stiffness in the body, slower movements, and restlessness. To address this adverse side effect, medical professionals established atypical antipsychotics, which do not have as much risk of EPS and other adverse side effects. Atypical antipsychotics have increased in popularity over the last 20 years, but are not without some side effects as well, including weight gain and risk of diabetes.
The good news about medication options? There are many options! Although it can feel challenging to find the right balance of medication, individuals diagnosed with schizophrenia can work closely with a psychiatrist to find the best regimen. When working with a psychiatrist, one should be sure to express what side effects are being experienced. Patience in the process can go a long way to finding the right balance of medication. Also, if the adverse side effects become too much, be sure to talk to the psychiatrist before giving up the medication. Antipsychotic medications are strong and need to be slowly reduced in one’s system before eliminated completely. The bottom line of medication? Find a psychiatrist that is easy to talk to and feels like he or she has time for these important discussions.
Medications are not a treatment on their own. Receiving a diagnosis of schizophrenia is a big change in life and talking to a mental health professional (e.g., counselor) to cope with the news can be very helpful. Unlike psychiatrists, counselors do not prescribe medication; however, they do specialize in talk therapy treatments. A person recently diagnosed with schizophrenia might find comfort in talking to a counselor about how to cope with the new information. Counselors use strength-based approaches to empower people to find understanding and purpose in life. Having both a psychiatrist and counselor on one’s treatment team will provide holistic treatment.
Finding Social Support
Some of the first symptoms felt by those diagnosed with schizophrenia include difficulty following conversations or having bizarre thoughts. The result of which may be to isolate away from friends and family. However, finding social support when diagnosed can serve as a protective factor and lead to more positive treatment outcomes. Many people are diagnosed with schizophrenia in young or early adulthood; therefore, parents may be the most readily available family support to rely on for help. The role in the family does not matter as much as finding a family member or close friend whom is trusted and one feels comfortable around to help discuss this life change. This person may also assist with doctor appointments and help explain information in times of confusion.
Family and friends are not the only social support available to those recently diagnosed. In fact, many mental health advocacy groups exist in the community. Those recently diagnosed may find comfort in joining a support group or advocacy group. Being around others coping and adjusting to a diagnosis of schizophrenia may help normalize the experience. A counselor may have referral information to a support or advocacy group in the community. If not, there are national organizations that host groups in the local community. Members of these groups may have insight into lifestyle choices that can support healthy living with schizophrenia.
Creating a Healthy Lifestyle
Medication is the most popular treatment option for individuals diagnosed with schizophrenia, but as reported earlier, medications are not without side effects. Fortunately, there are some lifestyle changes that can help reduce negative side effects and therefore improve positive treatment outcomes. For example, several medications used to treat symptoms of schizophrenia result in weight gain. Indeed, developing a balanced diet may help prevent an uncomfortable weight gain. Furthermore, atypical medications increase risk of diabetes, so a reduced-sugar diet can help reduce the likelihood of developing diabetes. A simple exchange from regular soda to sugar-free sodas and beverages might be an easy place to start a new diet adventure.
Another substantial lifestyle change to consider is eliminating substances, including alcohol, caffeine, and tobacco. All three of these substances are known to negatively interact with medications prescribed for treating schizophrenia. When faced with experiencing delusional thoughts or hallucinations, it may be easy to turn to alcohol to cope. However, alcohol can exacerbate symptoms and result in more need for hospitalization. Carefully limiting alcohol intake or abstaining may help one’s treatment outcomes. Similarly, caffeine may increase the negative side effects of antipsychotic medications. On the other hand, smoking may actually decrease the effectiveness of the medications, uncontrolled symptoms may result in more frequent hospitalizations. Not all antipsychotic medications may interact poorly with caffeine and tobacco products; therefore consult with the prescribing psychiatrist for more information. Creating a more healthy lifestyle may improve one’s mood overall, which in turn may help one cope with the recent diagnosis of schizophrenia.
A diagnosis of schizophrenia can be a scary. However, with appropriate treatment, a support system, and some lifestyle changes, individuals with schizophrenia can live successfully in the community. In fact the majority of people diagnosed with schizophrenia report reduction of symptoms and stabilization after diagnosis. Remember to ask for help from a treatment team and social network.
Elizabeth A. Prosek, PhD, is a member of the American Counseling Association. She is an assistant professor of counseling at the University of North Texas. In her clinical experience, she counseled individuals diagnosed with schizophrenia. In academia, her research and teaching interests include diagnosis and assessment, vulnerable client populations, and treatment of mental health disorders.