getting help early

Early intervention—or getting diagnosed and treated when the symptoms start—can make a world of difference for young people experiencing psychosis. Research shows that when psychotic illnesses such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder are treated early, people often have better outcomes and a faster recovery. The key to early intervention is being able to identify the symptoms when they begin.

What Hinders Early Intervention?

Despite the clear advantages of early intervention, there are several factors that can prevent it from happening:
  • Young people experiencing psychosis do not recognize it as an illness,
  • Families, friends, teachers, coaches, and employers are not familiar with the symptoms of psychosis, and often dismiss the early signs as typical teenage behaviour, rather than early symptoms of a very serious illness,
  • Some family doctors and health care providers do not recognize the signs of a psychotic disorder,
  • The stigma that surrounds mental illness discourages people from seeking treatment, because they do not want to be labelled ‘mentally ill’, and
  • There can be poor access to the mental health care system. People are often not admitted to hospital because there is a shortage of hospital beds.
However, there are places where you can go to get effectively diagnosed and receive early treatment.

Where Can I Get Help?

Some centres in Ontario have clinics that specialize in early intervention. Often called “First Episode” or “Early Psychosis Intervention” programs, the comprehensive services offered include treatment for young people experiencing their first psychotic episode and supports for families.

Specifically, these programs provide:
  • Assessment and diagnosis of psychotic disorders, including schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and severe depression,
  • The lowest possible dosages of the most effective anti-psychotic medications,
  • Rehabilitative programs to support the young person’s reintegration into school or work,
  • A complete range of psychosocial treatments, such as talk therapy and cognitive behavioural therapy,
  • A comprehensive family education and support program, as knowledgeable, informed families are very effective in helping the ill person comply with their treatment, which can lead to better recovery, and
  • Public education and awareness so that symptoms are recognized earlier and the stigma that often prevents people from seeking treatment is reduced.

What is Psychosis?

Psychosis is a physical condition of the brain that usually involves a loss of contact with reality, making it hard for a person to know what is real and what is not. It can greatly alter a person’s thoughts, perceptions, feelings and behaviour.

Psychotic symptoms can include:
  • Confused thinking, speaking, and behaviour,
  • Seeing or hearing things that are not real (hallucinations), and
  • Strongly held beliefs which are unusual and unjustified (delusions).
The longer these symptoms go unrecognized, the harder they become to treat. Studies show that on average young people experience symptoms for one to two years before getting effective help. If psychosis is left untreated, it can increase the risk for substance abuse, trouble with the law, violence, impaired functioning, and suicide.

The good news is that early intervention can prevent many of these problems from happening in the first place. Getting treatment early in the illness also makes it less likely that young people will relapse and have other psychotic episodes.

What are the Early Warning Signs of Psychosis?

The symptoms of psychosis can vary from person to person, but here are some of the early warning signs you can watch for. People first experiencing psychosis often begin to:
  • Feel depressed or anxious
  • Have difficulty thinking and concentrating
  • Show little or no emotion
  • Have changed sleeping patterns
  • Lack energy and motivation
  • Withdraw socially
  • Have suspicious or paranoid thinking
  • Have unusual perceptions and beliefs
If you or someone you know is experiencing some of these signs, it is very important to seek help immediately from a qualified medical professional.

What Causes Psychosis?

Psychosis affects men and women from every income level and cultural group. Approximately three per cent of the population will experience psychosis at some point. It usually begins when people are in their late teens and early twenties, though it can also occur later in life.

Research is ongoing as to the root causes of psychosis. What is known at the present is that it can be caused by a combination of factors such as:
  • Biology – dysfunction of the neurotransmitters in the brain,
  • Genetics – those with a close relative who has experienced psychosis are at higher risk,
  • Stress – psychotic symptoms can occur after experiencing a major stress, and
  • Substance abuse – excessive use of drugs and alcohol can ‘trigger’ psychosis.

How can Early Intervention Help?

A first episode of psychosis is very stressful and frightening for a young person. It is also upsetting for their family and friends, as they watch someone they love deteriorate in their thinking and behaviour. Early intervention means that these devastating effects can be kept to a minimum.

Some benefits of early treatment include:
  • Better chance of recovery for the ill person,
  • Less need for hospitalization (fewer and shorter hospital stays),
  • Preserved relationships with friends, schoolmates, and co-workers,
  • Earlier recovery so that the person can get back into life in their community,
  • Reduced risk of relapse, and
  • Less disruption to the family.