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“Psychosis” is a broad term that covers many different symptoms and experiences. Common symptoms include:

  • Hallucinations (seeing, hearing feeling or tasting things that other people don’t)
  • Feeling overwhelmed by sensory information (lights seem too bright, noises too loud)
  • Difficulty filtering stimulation from the environment
  • Delusions (false personal beliefs based on incorrect inferences about reality which are inconsistent with culture and previous beliefs, and which are firmly sustained in spite of evidence or proof to the contrary)
  • Confused thinking or speech
  • Difficulty doing ordinary things (often includes problems with memory, attention, putting thoughts together)

Who Experiences Psychosis?

Anyone can develop psychosis. Many people see or hear things that others don’t, or have ideas that are unusual. Psychosis is only a problem when it is causing you or someone close to you significant distress or harm.

It affects 3 in 100 people, and usually occurs for the first time between the ages of 15 and 30. Men often develop psychosis 5 to 10 years younger than women. It can be caused by a variety of medical illnesses, sleep deprivation, severe stress or trauma, drug reactions, genetic predisposition, and other factors.

Common Early Signs of Psychosis

Some of the most common signs of psychosis include:

  • A sudden loss of interest in things that the person used to find enjoyable
  • Inability to do the things that the person could do before (e.g., a person who normally loves math suddenly can’t do it anymore)
  • Social withdrawal and isolating from friends and family
  • Dramatic changes in sleep pattern
  • Statements or behavior that are bizarre and inconsistent with what’s going on around them

Emergence of Symptoms

Psychotic disorders rarely emerge suddenly. Most often, the symptoms evolve and become gradually worse over a period of months or even years. Early symptoms often include cognitive and sensory changes which can cause significant disability before the illness becomes acute and is finally diagnosed. Identifying and responding appropriately to the condition early can help to get the person and their family support.

1. Reduced Performance

  • Trouble reading or understanding complex sentences
  • Trouble speaking or understanding what others are saying
  • Becoming easily confused or lost
  • Trouble in sports or other activities that used to be easy (Example: can’t dribble basketball or pass to team members)
  • Attendance problems related to sleep or fearfulness

2. Behavior Changes

  • Extreme fear for no apparent reason
  • Uncharacteristic and bizarre actions or statements
  • New, bizarre beliefs
  • Incoherent or bizarre writing
  • Extreme social withdrawal
  • Decline in appearance and hygiene
  • Dramatic changes in sleeping or eating

3. Perceptual Changes

  • Fear that others are trying to hurt them
  • Heightened sensitivity to sights, sounds, smells or touch
  • Making statements like “my brain is playing tricks on me”
  • Hearing voices or other sounds that others don’t
  • Reporting visual changes (colors more intense, faces distorted, lines turned wavy)
  • Feeling like someone else is putting thoughts into their brain or that others are reading their thoughts

Earlier on, symptoms may be intermittent and the person often recognizes that something is wrong. As psychosis progresses, people lose their ability to distinguish symptoms from reality, and it becomes more difficult to have a conversation. For example, a person who has auditory hallucinations will hear voices which sound to them as loud and real and a person standing right next to them, even though others don’t hear it. A person whose psychosis has progressed may not believe that other people don’t hear the same voices and may not be able to integrate new information from others into their thinking.

Psychosis may also result from, or accompany, a mood disorder such as major depression or bipolar disorder (in which there are dramatic swings in energy level, sleep patterns, mood and behavior).

Example: A Concerning Change

Jonathan really liked two things: fixing computers and hanging out with his friends. So when he suddenly stopped doing both, it came as a big shock. His best friend came to visit and found him staring off into the distance.

“Have you been fixing that laptop?” she asked.

“No.” Jonathan’s face didn’t seem to show any emotion. His tone was flat.

“Are you feeling down? Depressed?”

Jonathan shrugged. “I don’t know. I can’t seem to focus on anything anymore. My computer screen hurts my eyes.”

As time passed, Jonathan’s teachers and parents started noticing differences too. He stopped doing his homework and would skip class. Then, his friends noticed that he was posting unusual statements on Facebook.

“Aliens are out to get me and they’re talking through the TV,” he wrote. “I’m scared. I don’t know what to do.”

Stories like these are not uncommon for people experiencing psychosis for the first time. It can be very concerning for both the individual and their family, friends, and allies. But there is hope.

Many young people experience psychosis and still realize their hopes and goals. It is important that they receive support from their families, friends, allies, and mental health.

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