Understanding Symptoms of Psychosis and who is at Risk 

young female and male teens having a conversation about psychosis

The dramatic portrayal of psychosis in movies and popular media often sensationalizes and misrepresents the condition. In reality, psychosis encompasses a spectrum of experiences that extend beyond the extremes of violence or unpredictability. Mindmap shares factual information in order to dispel myths and make psychosis safer and more comfortable to talk about. 

This article will cover:

About Psychosis

Psychosis is a medical syndrome or collection of unusual experiences (symptoms) and observable changes in speech or behavior (signs). It is characterized by changes in thinking, feeling, and behavior. During an episode of psychosis, individuals can struggle to differentiate what is real from what is not. They may also come to believe false explanations for their experiences. Contrary to many myths, psychosis is treatable, and the earlier, the better. 

Who is at Risk for Experiencing Psychosis?

Anyone can experience psychosis, however certain factors can increase one’s risk. These factors include:  

  • Individuals ages 16-35 are especially vulnerable 
  • Family history of schizophrenia or other mental health conditions 
  • Drug use, especially high potency cannabis 
  • Social or environmental factors 
  • Traumatic disruptions in key developmental stages of childhood 
  • Brain injury 

Psychosis can have several causes. A careful assessment is required to distinguish if an episode is caused by medical illnesses or drug use. Once these other causes are considered, the most likely reason for psychosis in a young adult is the emergence of a schizophrenia spectrum disorder or other mental illnesses like bipolar disorder or depression. 

Common Signs & Symptoms

A number of unusual experiences (symptoms) and behaviors (signs) can be present during an episode of psychosis. Sometimes symptoms can be subtle and expressed only to a trusted relative or friend. They can even be observed before the individual is willing to acknowledge their need for help. When there is uncertainty about the presence of psychosis, reach out to us or a healthcare professional. 

Take our quiz or read through the list below to see if an individual may be experiencing psychosis.
  • blue doodle icon of ear

    Disturbances in sensory perception

    Seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and feeling things that are not real. Occasional or persistent hallucinations that cause individuals to experience someone or something that is not there. Friends and family may witness individuals speaking out loud to no one in particular. They may also notice them interacting as if they have company when they are alone.

  • yellow doodle icon of thought and speech bubble

    Confused thinking or speech

    Trouble concentrating, connecting one's thoughts, or slowing one's thoughts down while they tend to race. Words are jumbled, off-pace (fast or slow), and may seem fragmented or incoherent to others. Friends and family may have trouble understanding them or following an individual's train of thought.

  • orange doodle icon of a lightening bolt

    False beliefs and interpretations

    Persistent delusions that interfere with daily life. For example, belief that one has magical or superhuman powers, or that outside forces are trying to control an individual. Friends and family may encounter anger or resistance when they point out that the delusions are not real.

  • green doodle icon of suspicious looking eyes

    Suspiciousness, paranoia, or unease with others

    Experiences of psychosis can be quite frightening. Individuals may not understand what is happening to them and may be afraid to tell others. Experiences of paranoia can include believing that the government is scheming against them to suspicions that someone is poisoning food.

  • orange doodle icon of an explosive exclamation point

    Extreme behaviors in response to these things that seem very real

    It can be frustrating to experience things that others claim are not real. Loved ones may observe angry or extreme responses that seem out of proportion to what is happening. It is important to be mindful that these responses are usually rooted in fear and/or confusion.

  • blue doodle icon of a puzzle piece

    Recognizing patterns and signs in random occurrences

    Tendency to detect patterns that do not exist. Loved ones may notice individuals making predictions or seeking answers, based on unrelated events. This can lead to poor decision-making and increase the intensity of other symptoms.

  • yellow doodle icon of person stuck in a container

    Withdrawing from family and friends

    Being with others may increase paranoid delusions through social anxiety or feelings of social threat. You may notice that over time individuals become more isolated and lose interest in social activities that they once enjoyed. List description here

  • blue doodle icon of individual looking in the mirror at themself

    Decline in self-care and motivation

    Lack of self-care in terms of personal health, hygiene, and living conditions. Individuals often lose motivation to get daily tasks done and lose interest in things they once enjoyed.

  • green doodle icon of report card

    Disruptions in school and work life

    Experiencing psychosis can affect an individual's ability to concentrate, remember things, and keep track of a schedule. This makes following directions and other school and work-related activities difficult. Friends and family may notice a drop in grades or work performance.

What to do if you or someone you know may be having these experiences

Psychosis is treatable, and it is widely accepted that the earlier people get help the better the outcome. With treatment, recovery in psychosis is the expectation, not the exception.  

Unfortunately, many individuals with psychosis do not wish to seek help or know where to go for assistance. It can often take months or years after their first episode before they receive help. This period is referred to as the Duration of Untreated Psychosis (DUP). During DUP individuals may have unnecessary interactions with the criminal justice system or involuntary admissions to psychiatric hospitals. Additionally, shoretening DUP can reduce the distress, disability, and even risk of self-harm in persons with psychosis.

Family, friends, and other community members (e.g., teachers and police) can help by learning the common signs and symptoms. As trusted member of the community, they are able to support and assist individuals into care. We are here to help anyone in the community who is concerned about someone who may have psychosis. 

If this information was helpful and you’d like to share it, download our handout. More resources are available in our digital tool kit.

Everyone plays a role in making sure young individuals experiencing psychosis get the help they need as soon as possible. Learn more about your role and the barriers we can overcome.

Join us for a Family & Community Workshop hosted by the STEP Learning Collaborative