What is schizoaffective disorder?

Schizoaffective disorder is a serious mental illness that has features of two different disorders—schizophrenia and an affective (mood) disorder, either major depressive disorder or bipolar disorder.

Schizophrenia is a brain disorder that distorts the way a person thinks, acts, expresses emotions, perceives reality, and relates to others.

Depression is an illness that is marked by feelings of sadness, worthlessness, or hopelessness. It may also include problems concentrating and remembering details.

Bipolar disorder is characterized by cycling mood changes, including severe highs (mania) and lows (depression).

Schizoaffective disorder is a life-long illness that can impact all areas of daily living, including:

  • Work
  • School
  • Social contacts
  • Relationships

Most people with this disorder have periodic episodes, when their symptoms surface. While there is no cure for schizoaffective disorder, symptoms may often be controlled with treatment, particularly with medications.

Who gets schizoaffective disorder?

Schizoaffective disorder usually begins in the late teen years or early adulthood, often between the ages of 16 and 30. It seems to occur slightly more often in women than in men and is rare in children.

How common is schizoaffective disorder?

Because people with schizoaffective disorder have symptoms of two separate mental illnesses, it is often misdiagnosed. Some people might be misdiagnosed as having schizophrenia, and others might be misdiagnosed with a mood disorder. As a result, it is difficult to determine exactly how many people actually are affected by schizoaffective disorder.

However, it is believed to be less common than either schizophrenia or affective disorder alone. Estimates suggest that about one in every 200 people (.5 percent) develops schizoaffective disorder at some time during his or her life.

What are the symptoms of schizoaffective disorder?

A person with schizoaffective disorder has severe changes in mood and some of the psychotic symptoms of schizophrenia, such as:

  • Hallucinations
  • Delusions
  • Paranoia
  • Disorganized thinking

Psychotic symptoms may include the inability to tell what is real from what is imagined. Symptoms of schizoaffective disorder might vary greatly from one person to the next and might be mild or severe. Symptoms might include the following:

Depression symptoms

  • Depressed or low mood
  • Poor appetite
  • Weight loss or gain
  • Changes in sleeping patterns (sleeping very little or a lot)
  • Agitation (excessive restlessness)
  • Lack of energy
  • Loss of interest in usual activities
  • Feelings of worthlessness or hopelessness
  • Guilt or self-blame
  • Inability to think or concentrate
  • Thoughts of death or suicide

Mania symptoms

  • Increased activity, including work, social, and sexual activity
  • Increased and/or rapid talking
  • Rapid or racing thoughts
  • Little need for sleep
  • Agitation
  • Inflated self-esteem
  • Distractibility
  • Self-destructive or dangerous behavior (such as going on spending sprees, driving recklessly, or having unsafe sex)

Psychotic symptoms

  • Delusions (strange beliefs that are not based in reality and that the person refuses to give up, even when presented with factual information)
  • Hallucinations (the perception of sensations that aren’t real, such as hearing voices)
  • Disorganized or confused thinking
  • Odd or unusual behavior
  • Slow movements or total immobility
  • Lack of emotion in facial expression and speech
  • Poor motivation
  • Problems with speech and communication

What causes schizoaffective disorder?

While the exact cause of schizoaffective disorder is not known, researchers believe that genetic, biochemical, and environmental factors are involved.

  • Genetics (heredity): A tendency to develop schizoaffective disorder may be passed on from parents to their children, and may be present in several members of an extended family.
  • Brain chemistry: People with schizophrenia and mood disorders might have an imbalance of certain chemicals in the brain. These chemicals, called neurotransmitters, are substances that help nerve cells in the brain send messages to each other. An imbalance in these chemicals can interfere with the transmission of messages, leading to symptoms.
  • Environmental factors: Evidence suggests that certain environmental factors—such as a viral infection, poor social interactions, or highly stressful situations—may trigger schizoaffective disorder in people who have inherited a tendency to develop the disorder.

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