What is Psychosis?

Psychosis refers to changes in the brain that interfere with a person’s experience of his or her world.  Characteristic symptoms are:

  • Hallucinations: hearing voices or seeing visions
  • Delusions: false beliefs or marked irrational suspicions of others
  • Confused thinking: disorganized thoughts or speech, difficulty concentrating or understanding others

People who have any of these symptoms are identified as experiencing psychosis. In addition, they also commonly experience:

  • Social withdrawal
  • Disrupted sleep patterns
  • Disrupted thoughts, memory, and attention
  • Decreased motivation
  • Pervasive anxiety
  • An inability to enjoy themselves
  • Odd, unusual behaviors
  • Changes in appetite and eating
  • Difficulty with daily activities, such as school and work
  • Decreased sense of smell
  • Decreased stress tolerance
  • Increased sensory sensitivity

Occasionally, people experiencing psychosis have suicidal or homicidal impulses. However, homicidal impulses are uncommon, despite myths to the contrary. The latest international research suggests that psychotic illnesses first emerge in mid- to late adolescence or early adulthood and are very distressing for young people and their families. Studies show that very early symptoms can start in pre-adolescence, with subtle experiences of psychosis appearing occasionally for years. Approximately two to three in every 100 people will experience a psychotic episode, making psychosis more common than many chronic diseases in youth. With treatment, many people make a full recovery from a psychotic episode.

What You Should Know About Psychosis

A key characteristic of psychosis is heightened sensitivity to:
  • Incoming sensory information (sights, sounds, smells, touch, movement)
  • Prolonged stress and strenuous demands
  • Rapid change in expectations, events, or routines
  • Complexity of a situation (a lot going on at once)
  • Social disruption
  • Illicit drugs and alcohol
  • Criticism or lack of warmth from others
  • Symptoms of psychosis are treatable.
  • Recovery from a first episode of psychosis is possible.
  • It’s no one’s fault – neither the symptomatic person nor the family is to blame.
  • Symptoms of psychosis should not be ignored, because the longer they persist, the less chance there is for effective treatment and complete recovery.
  • Early experience of psychosis can be extremely confusing and traumatic for both the young person and his or her family. Symptoms can cause them considerable distress and disruption.
  • Psychosocial interventions can be very effective. These are aimed at reducing stress and stimulation and teaching coping strategies for both the young person and the family.
  • Treatment requires a comprehensive biopsychosocial (biological, psychological, and social) approach and a range of specialized treatments that address not only the specific symptoms, but also the impact of these symptoms on the person and his or her family.

What Causes Psychosis?

While research into the causes of psychosis is relatively new and ongoing, increasing evidence suggests that schizophrenia and other illnesses producing psychotic symptoms are serious and complex disorders triggered by psychosocial stresses, and caused in large part by a host of biological events or disorders. These include genetic mutations, fetal viral infection, birth complications, paternal age, RH incompatibility, infant or early childhood head injury, and autoimmune disorders. This evidence supports the view of psychotic illnesses as real neurological and/or developmental disorders.

To access our technical assistance portfolio on First Episode Psychosis, please click here.

Note: The information on this page was extracted from the booklet Recognizing and Helping Young People at Risk for Psychosis, developed by the Portland Identification and Early Referral (PIER) program and utilized in conjunction with the EDIPPP initiative. Please click here to access the full document.