Is Schizophrenia Inevitable?

Ph.D., CPsychol., AFBPsS, Health Professional

Even if you only have a passing interest in the latest schizophrenia research news, one thing stands out above all others, the emphasis on genes. Because of this, it must occur to some people that their outlook, or perhaps that of their children, is both predetermined and fairly bleak. But it need not be this way.

Current wisdom states that schizophrenia has its basis both in our genes and in environmental stressors occurring very early in our development. It is thought that these factors work together to develop a susceptibility to schizophrenia that is triggered by further environmental factors and psychological stress. Put another way, schizophrenia may be thought of as the result of some interplay between our biological, social and psychological selves. So, whilst the exact mechanism for the onset of schizophrenia may not be known, there are clues that we can reduce the risk of developing schizophrenia or other mental illnesses.

Let's unpack this idea a bit further. Starting with genes, the evidence is pretty compelling that genes play a significant role in schizophrenia. Equally compelling is the case for saying that genes alone do not predict the development of schizophrenia. For this to happen, genes need to become active, and this occurs when a certain mix of environmental and psychological stressors are involved. Because every person and their circumstances are different, the exact proportion of genetic-to-environmental factors is hard to predict.

Risk reduction then, is only partly in our hands, but the odds are surprisingly good. For this to make sense, you first need to weigh up your odds by looking back at your family history. A person with no family history of schizophrenia has just a one percent chance of developing schizophrenia. A person with say an aunt or uncle who has schizophrenia, increases their risk to around three percent. What may surprise you is that a person who has one parent with schizophrenia has a risk of just 13 percent of developing schizophrenia themselves. The more people in the family with schizophrenia, the greater the risk.

Our current understanding of schizophrenia should favor today's youth. For example, many parents with schizophrenia are able to explain the nature of their illness to their children. Some children may be fortunate enough to have the issues explained by their family doctor, or possibly even a genetic counselor, or maybe a teacher. The risk of developing schizophrenia increases significantly with the use of drugs. Early interventions with psychological problems like low moods, anxiety or stress are also important. Lifestyle choices that involve a balanced diet, regular sleep, a low stress environment and regular exercise all contribute to risk reduction strategies.