New research estimates that one in 13 people will experience a psychotic episode by the time they are 75.1 Most often that experience will happen during adolescence or young adulthood. However, for about one quarter of people it occurs after the age of 40, according to a recent study.
The study, led by John McGrath, M.D., Ph.D., with the University of Queensland in Australia, looked at worldwide mental health data from the World Health Organization involving more than 30,000 respondents in 18 countries.
What is a psychotic episode? Does experiencing a psychotic episode mean you have a mental illness or that you will have a mental illness later? What could you do to help someone experiencing psychosis?
A psychotic experience, or psychosis, involves symptoms that make it difficult for a person to know what is real, to think clearly, to communicate, or feel normal emotions.
It can involve:
- hallucinations – hearing, seeing, smelling or feeling things that are not there. The most common type of hallucination is hearing voices.
- delusions – false beliefs that do not change even when faced with proof they are false.
Psychosis may be most commonly thought of as a symptom of schizophrenia, but it can be a symptom of several different mental disorders. It can also be caused by a number of medical conditions and substances, such as Parkinson’s disease, stroke, brain tumors, some medications and alcohol and drugs, including marijuana. A thorough medical exam, laboratory tests, and psychiatric evaluation are used to help identify the cause of psychosis.
Psychosis and mental disorders
The association between psychotic experience and mental disorders works in both directions. A separate study led by McGrath concluded that psychotic experiences are associated with an elevated risk of later mental disorders, including psychotic disorders, depression, anxiety, and others; and most mental disorders are associated with an increased risk of a later psychotic experience.2
Recognizing symptoms and family support
A report from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) highlights the complexity of recognizing symptoms and the challenge of discussing them openly, even among people who care about each other. NAMI conducted a survey of people who had personally experienced psychosis and who had witnessed someone in early stages of psychosis.3About 40 percent of individuals said they were the first to recognize their own symptoms, however only about 15 percent of friends and family said that individuals were the first to recognize their own symptoms.
As one survey respondent explained: “I knew something wasn’t right but I was afraid to tell anyone about my thoughts… Then I got to a point that I was so wrapped up in those delusions and hallucinations I was helpless.”
The survey highlighted the lack of help or support and isolation felt by many—more than 20 percent of individuals and family and friends felt that “no one” helped when the symptoms occurred. People identified a number of ways that people had helped them, including:
- Listening patiently and compassionately, without making judgments
- Making suggestions without being confrontational; remaining gentle and calm
- Explaining the nature of the illness and what was happening
- Encouragement that “normalized the experience,” such as returning to school or work
- Identifying problems early
If you or someone you know is experienced a psychotic episode, talk about it. Get a thorough evaluation from a psychiatrist or other health care provider to help identify the cause and appropriate treatment.