Schizophrenia–a serious, chronic mental illness–makes up approximately one-third of U.S. homeless and a quarter of all mental health costs. Many afflicted are unable to hold jobs and live normal, well-adjusted lives, and thus the disorder places an undue burden on the public health system. While serious, however, it is treatable, and the only way to help is to first understand the basics of schizophrenia.

The Facts
Schizophrenia is a lifelong, disabling brain disorder marked by the hearing of voices, as well as the fear others are reading and controlling your thoughts and are out to get you. As of 2009 there was no cure, but the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill hopes to have one by 2013. Family history seems to play a major role, but as many of the symptoms can be attributed to other disorders, misdiagnosis is common.

Schizophrenia affects approximately 51 million people worldwide, and more than 100,000 people in the United States are diagnosed with the disorder each year. It strikes men and women equally, but is noted to hit males in their teens and women in their mid-20s to early 30s. reports the disorder is among the top 10 causes for disability in developed countries worldwide.

Six subtypes of schizophrenia exist. Paranoid schizophrenia is most common, associated with hallucinations and the deep suspicion of those around you. Disorganized schizophrenia, also known as Hebephrenic Schizophrenia, is characterized by unusual thought processes and emotions often inappropriate for the situation. Catatonia deals with coordination problems, feelings of isolation, and being withdrawn. Residual schizophrenics lack motivation and interest in everyday activity. Schizoaffective occurs when schizophrenia is coupled with a mood disorder such as mania. When the general guidelines for the disorder are present, but symptoms do not neatly fit in the aforementioned types, undifferentiated schizophrenia is diagnosed.

Three categories of symptoms are associated with schizophrenia. Positive symptoms are easily spotted as healthy people do not experience them, such as unusual and disorganized thoughts or perceptions, hallucinations and delusions, and unusual movement problems. Negative symptoms, as The National Institute for Mental Health writes, refer “to reductions in normal emotional and behavioral states.” These symptoms are often attributed to laziness or depression. Thirdly, cognitive symptoms relate to poor attention and memory.

Your doctor may first administer a series of tests to rule out other likely possibilities, though no physical test currently exists that can “absolutely” diagnose schizophrenia. Knowing your family history and keeping a daily journal of your thoughts and actions can help your doctor come to an accurate conclusion, as well. Once diagnosed, doctors generally prescribe antipsychotic medications, but take note: One medication may work for some but not for others, so it may take a few tries to find the one that works for you. Psychotherapy and support groups both in person and online can also help.

Warningthe suicide rate is 50 times that of the general population. Substance abuse, mainly nicotine, is also common among schizophrenics. NIMH reports that “several studies have found that smoking interferes with the action of antipsychotic drugs,” thus you will require higher doses of medication for them to work properly if you smoke. It is important that you tell your doctor if you start smoking and if you quit, as quitting may trigger episodes to worsen temporarily.