By Dr. Alexa Connors, acute services psychology fellow at CHOC
There are a lot of myths about psychosis in society which make it hard for us to understand and support people with psychosis – even though three out of 100 people will experience psychosis in their lifetime.
In this article, I will help parents debunk myths about psychosis and provide advice and resources for helping kids and teens who may experience psychosis.
Myths and facts about psychosis in kids
Myth: My child received a psychosis-related diagnosis, so they will have psychosis for the rest of their life.
Fact: While we can never say with full certainty what the future holds, many people who experience symptoms of psychosis (particularly when they are young and/or experience fewer symptoms) completely recover and no longer have symptoms at some point. While there is no known “cure” for psychosis, the treatments explained below have been shown to improve symptoms and overall quality of life.
Myth: People who experience symptoms of psychosis can use substances including cannabis and alcohol.
Fact: It is extremely important that those who experience psychosis avoid substances including alcohol and cannabis, because they can worsen symptoms or make symptoms re-emerge.
Myth: My child will never be able to accomplish their goals of going to college, moving out, and/or having a family of their own even with psychosis.
Fact: Psychosis can become much easier to cope with through treatment and support from others, and those who have psychosis symptoms can absolutely go on to accomplish anything that they choose to.
Myth: People with psychosis are violent and scary.
Fact: Many people with psychosis do not have violent thoughts or urges to harm others. If these thoughts do emerge for your teen, do your best to remain calm and discuss with their therapist.
Myth: My teen developed psychosis because of “bad parenting.”
Fact: Parenting choices do NOT increase or decrease the chances of a teen developing psychosis.
What is psychosis?
Psychosis is a broad term for many symptoms including unusual thoughts (such as concerns about outside forces controlling them), changes to any of the five senses (such as hearing sounds or seeing things that are not truly there), paranoia and suspiciousness, strange boosts in energy or other big changes in behavior and difficulty speaking typically (talking very slowly or going off-topic).
Many who experience psychosis have trouble with their daily tasks (i.e., showering, brushing teeth, attending school), may have a harder time concentrating or remembering things, and may have a harder time getting motivated.
Caregivers often share that in the first few months, they notice a change in their teen’s behavior. They may have a hard time with homework and chores, talk to themselves, or show new or worsened fear of others and the world.
Possible diagnoses of psychosis
Psychosis usually begins when a person is between 16 to 30 years old and is a type of mental health diagnosis. Many times, a person will have their first experience with psychosis after a traumatic event or severe stress.
A traumatic event or severe stress can also lead to an increase in or a worsening of symptoms in a person who has been diagnosed with psychosis.
Some examples of mental health disorders which may include symptoms of psychosis are:
- Major depressive disorder with psychotic features.
- Bipolar disorder with psychotic features.
- Schizophrenia (very rare in children).
It is also common for someone to have some symptoms of psychosis but not enough symptoms or severe enough symptoms to warrant any diagnosis. This is referred to as “prodromal” psychosis, meaning that symptoms do not reach a clinical level.
Treatments for psychosis
There are several options for treatment for teens with any type or level of psychosis symptoms. The earlier a person with psychosis starts treatment, the better!
Participating in treatment for psychosis symptoms helps people learn about their symptoms and learn coping skills. For many, it is important to participate in treatment long-term as some symptoms may stick around for years.
For many, medication is helpful for decreasing the intensity, frequency, or nature of symptoms (i.e. a person who previously heard “scary” voices may now just hear their name or more neutral phrases), and may help with symptoms such as trouble concentrating or putting words together, lack of motivation or trouble completing daily tasks.
Talk therapy can help teens learn more about their condition as well as how to cope with their symptoms, recognize when they may need extra support from caregivers, how to communicate their needs, and practice changing their thoughts about their symptoms.
Examples include learning how to figure out if something is a hallucination, and cope with paranoia. Because stress can trigger a worsening of symptoms, it is important to prioritize quality sleep, eating balanced meals and getting regular exercise.
Caregivers should meet with their teen’s therapist to learn how to best support them. Caregivers can also benefit from their own therapy because it can be very stressful to support a teen with psychosis.
Additional tools and resources about psychosis for parents
As a caregiver for someone with psychosis, you can play a huge role in helping your teen out. Just by reading this article, you are already making a difference!
You can continue assisting them by helping them get into therapy and reviewing this blog with them to answer questions they may have. If you hear someone saying a myth about psychosis, feel free to pass this information along.
The following are resources you can access for additional information:
- National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) early psychosis fact sheet
- Orange County Center for Resiliency Education and Wellness (OC CREW)
- CHOC mental health treatment overview
- National Institute of Mental Health psychosis information
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The mental health team at CHOC curated the following resources on mental health topics common to kids and teens, such as depression, anxiety, suicide prevention and more.