What You Should Know About Schizoaffective Disorder, A Rare But Treatable Mental Illness

by JR Thorpe
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While various mental health issues, like depression, have been getting more attention over the past years, there are still many mental illnesses that aren't talked about, because of myths, misconceptions and taboos around them. One of those is schizoaffective disorder, a condition that's relatively rare and often misdiagnosed; the Royal College of Psychiatrists estimates that fewer than 1 in 100 people will experience it in their lifetimes.

"Schizoaffective is a bit more rare than other mental health disorders, so it tends to get less attention," Amanda Porter, a psychiatric nurse practitioner with Lindner Center of Hope in Ohio, tells Bustle. But the condition is very serious, and it deserves closer attention.

"Schizoaffective disorder is the unique combination of symptoms of schizophrenia and mood disorder — and for this reason it is often misdiagnosed as either," psychotherapist Natalija Rascotina tells Bustle. "The individual will have both psychosis that may include delusions, hallucinations, linguistic and cognitive impairment. alongside depression or mood swings." Other symptoms of schizoaffective disorder can include fatigue, sadness, inability to sleep, agitation or irritability, or paranoia, according to Mental Health America.

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People with schizoaffective disorder, Porter says, often combine "the 'positive' symptoms of schizophrenia", like delusions, hallucinations and psychosis, with the mood extremes that characterize a mood disorder. Positive, in this context, is a term used for a certain cluster of schizophrenic symptoms, to distinguish them from 'negative' symptoms like apathy and loss of social skills.

People who have schizoaffective disorder may be diagnosed with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, which require different treatment protocols. It often takes a medical professional to look at the subtleties of the condition and diagnose it properly, says Porter. The key, she says, is in how and when psychosis manifests itself. If the person only experiences hallucinations and paranoia when they're in a manic phase — staying up late, talking constantly, believing they're invincible — then they do have bipolar, she explains. "If the psychosis occurs regardless of mood or mania, then the diagnosis is schizoaffective disorder, bipolar type," she says.

There are also different types of schizoaffective disorder,The British Medical Journal explains: "bipolar type" or manic type, which involves both depression and mania alongside schizophrenic symptoms, and the "depressive" type, which only has depression with hallucinations and delusions.

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Another important fact about schizoaffective disorder? It's treatable. "Schizoaffective disorder can and should be treated with a combination of medication and psychotherapy," Rascotina tells Bustle. "During psychotic episodes or mood swings it is essential that the person's anxieties are contained by a sensitive therapist, who will also ensure that affected individual's environment does not collude with the delusion and doesn't try to shock individual out of their beliefs."

"We treat schizoaffective disorder with a mood stabilizer and/or an anti-psychotic, which acts as a mood stabilizer while also addressing the underlying psychosis," Porter says. Unfortunately, even with medication and therapy, stabilizing someone with schizoaffective disorder isn't a process that happens quickly. "The process of healing is gradual," says Rascotina.

Tragically, people with schizoaffective disorder are at a higher risk of suicide than the general population. It's crucial to get a good diagnosis and sympathetic, effective treatment early to make sure that anybody with schizoaffective disorder has the best support they can get. And greater awareness of the disorder can go a long way to help destigmatize the disorder, and make it OK for people to get help.

If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or text HOME to the Crisis Text Line at 741741. You can also reach out to the Trans Lifeline at 877-565-8860 or the Trevor Lifeline at 1-866-488-7386, or to your local suicide crisis center.