Published On: June 22, 2022
Reviewed On: June 22, 2022
Updated On: July 17, 2023
Roughly 2.8 million Americans have been diagnosed with schizophrenia, though it’s suspected many more live with the condition undiagnosed. Hallmark symptoms of schizophrenia include hallucinations, delusions, and disorganized speech and thought patterns.
While we don’t fully understand what causes it, according to Mental Health America, people diagnosed with schizophrenia can have an imbalance of neurotransmitters in their brains. It’s possible that this might lead to someone hearing voices or seeing things that aren’t real.
Despite researchers being unclear about exactly what causes schizophrenia, there are many similarities found in people who have it. These findings give us a good idea about some likely schizophrenia causes and triggers.
Keep reading to learn what we know about the causes of schizophrenia and what some of the known risk factors are.
One widely accepted theory about the cause of schizophrenia has to do with brain development. Specifically, it points to brain development before being born. This theory is lent credence by the fact that people whose mothers were malnourished during pregnancy are much more likely to develop schizophrenia later in life.
Another theory of schizophrenia causes, discovered by an international panel of researchers, is that it might be caused by a change in the levels of the important neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin.
“The causes of schizophrenia are multi-faceted in that they’re rooted in both nature and nurture. Typically, dissociations from reality, one of the key components of schizophrenia, run in families. The imbalance in neurotransmitters seems to also be a general theme. Environmental conditions such as toxicity, substance use, trauma, pregnancy complications, etc. can all trigger the original schizophrenia onset.”
Although the exact cause of schizophrenia is unknown, many factors are believed to trigger the onset or increase the chances of someone developing it. While schizophrenia in children and adolescents can occasionally be diagnosed, generally diagnosing schizophrenia occurs when someone is in their late teens to early to mid-20s. Genetics, pregnancy complications of the mother, recreational substance use, brain changes, and childhood trauma might be contributors to the development of schizophrenia.
“Having a family history of schizophrenia, being exposed to mind-altering drugs (either psychoactive or psychotropic), and pregnancy complications (specifically related to malnourishment) can set individuals up for the development of schizophrenia.”
While we’ve yet to prove a definitive causal relationship between genetics and a predisposition for schizophrenia, as noted, the disorder does seem to run in families.
According to research done by the University of North Carolina Department of Psychiatrics, an identical twin has a 50% genetic risk of developing schizophrenia if the other twin also has it. People with close family members — parents or siblings — have a 10% chance of one day being diagnosed.
“Genetics play a large role in the diagnosis of schizophrenia because typically there are several people with the same diagnosis within the same lineage. Research has also supported brain changes, specifically brain chemistry, causing schizophrenia as well. Environmental factors can trigger the initial onset of schizophrenia with certain predispositions already in place.”
Anecdotal evidence seems to support a genetic link. Researchers in the UK have proposed it’s likely to be a combination of genes that are responsible for schizophrenia, rather than just one single gene.
Some things that happen during their mother’s pregnancy and delivery can put a person at an increased risk of developing schizophrenia. These include low birth weight, premature labor, asphyxia (lack of oxygen) during birth, and, as mentioned, malnourishment of the mother during pregnancy.
While the use of recreational drugs doesn’t effectively cause schizophrenia, it is likely to increase the chance of someone getting it who’s already at high risk.
Research by the Health Service of the UK suggests that using recreational drugs, including and especially cocaine, cannabis, amphetamines, and LSD, can potentially trigger schizophrenia symptoms in people who are susceptible.
Changes in the chemistry of the brain, like what happens with head injuries, extremely high fevers, or some diseases, are thought to be another of the several potential schizophrenia causes.
While more research is needed, some studies show that trauma during the formative childhood years might lead to schizophrenia in the future. Sometimes, a schizophrenia-caused hallucination can involve neglect or abuse from childhood.
Having a risk factor or predisposition for schizophrenia doesn’t mean that someone will definitely develop it. Often, there’s a trigger event that marks the beginning of schizophrenia symptoms.
Common and known triggers can include:
Major life events like divorce, a death in the family, the loss of a job or home, or physical or sexual abuse can trigger schizophrenia symptoms in people already at risk.
Being homeless, living in poverty, existing in a volatile or scary situation, and having poor nutrition are all thought to be potential triggers for some people.
Some viruses and autoimmune diseases are thought to trigger the onset of schizophrenia. Mental Health America states that when mothers get the flu during pregnancy, their babies are ultimately at an increased risk of eventually developing schizophrenia at some point in life. Another cause includes developing a severe infection that results in hospitalization.
Knowledge is always a powerful defense against schizophrenia. Knowing the likely schizophrenia causes and triggers, being aware of the negative symptoms, and learning life skills to help you manage symptoms are all important. These tools can effectively improve your quality of life and help you cope with a schizophrenia diagnosis.
Maintaining a healthy lifestyle is important. That can include a focus on things like:
There are also a plethora of helpful resources available online to help you better learn how to deal with schizophrenia.
Finding a support group can be beneficial. You’ll learn coping techniques and have a chance to connect with others who also have experience with schizophrenia. Your healthcare team can help you find a local group, or the National Alliance on Mental Illness has links to several, reputable online support groups on their website.
The key to managing any mental health condition, including schizophrenia, is an effective treatment plan that almost always includes therapy. Online therapy platforms like Talkspace offer different forms of therapy that are accessible and convenient, including therapy for schizophrenia.
Gain access to highly qualified, experienced therapists who can be your guide to managing schizophrenia so you can lead a successful, full life. You don’t have to let a schizophrenia diagnosis take control. There is help available, and Talkspace can be a helpful resource for finding it.
Treatment Advocacy Center. Published 2022. Accessed May 13, 2022.
Mental Health America. Accessed May 13, 2022.
Kirkbride J, Susser E, Kundakovic M, Kresovich J, Davey Smith G, Relton C. Epigenomics. 2012;4(3):303-315. doi:10.2217/epi.12.20. Accessed May 13, 2022.
Brisch R, Saniotis A, Wolf R et al. Front Psychiatry. 2014;5. doi:10.3389/fpsyt.2014.00047. Accessed May 13, 2022.
UNC Center for Excellence in Community Mental Health. UNC Center for Excellence in Community Mental Health. Accessed May 13, 2022.
nhs.uk. Published 2019. Accessed May 13, 2022.
Stilo S, Di Forti M, Murray R. Neuropsychiatry (London). 2011;1(5):457-466. Accessed May 13, 2022.
Meaghan Rice is a mental health consultant specializing in professionals who are looking to close the gap between where they are and where they envision themselves being. With a decade of experience in the mental health field, working in a variety of different capacities, Dr. Rice has found her niche amidst the therapist, consultant, and trainer roles.