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What is a psychotic disorder (schizophrenia)?

Psychosis describes when a person loses contact with reality and experiences severe instability (unpredictable changes) in thinking, emotions, and behaviour. It can make people have strange ideas and behave oddly. The main psychotic disorders are schizophrenia and drug-induced psychosis.

What are the signs and symptoms of a psychotic disorder?

Psychosis can have physical (the body), psychological (the mind), and behavioural (the way people act) signs and symptoms.

The physical signs may include:

The psychological signs may include:

The behavioural signs may include:

It is important to be are aware that the signs and symptoms of psychosis can be different for different cultures. For example, in some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, being visited by the spirit of a loved one who has passed away or hearing their voice is normal, so it's different to psychosis. In other cultures, these experiences may be signs or symptoms of psychosis.

It is also important to be aware that only a qualified and trained health professional, such as a psychiatrist, can diagnose someone with psychosis. Deciding whether someone has psychosis or not depends on the person meeting a strict set of criteria (meaning the person must experience a certain number of signs/symptoms for a certain length of time).

What are the risk factors for a psychotic disorder?

There is no single cause for psychosis - it is normally the result of a combination of factors. Some people are more at risk of developing a psychotic disorder because of:

There are other factors that can slightly increase the chances of someone developing a psychotic disorder. These factors include having complications at the time of birth or a head injury.

How common are psychotic disorders among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people?

Information about how many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have a psychotic disorder is not available, but hospitalisation information from 2008-09 shows that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults were four times more likely to be hospitalised for schizophrenia and delusional disorders than were other Australians.

Research has also found that psychotic disorders are more common among young adult Aboriginal men, especially those who also have substance misuse problems, intellectual impairments, and diabetes.

How do you help someone with a psychotic disorder?

When helping someone who has a psychotic disorder, it is important that you:

People who are experiencing signs of a psychotic disorder will sometimes try and keep these physical, psychological, and behavioural changes a secret and not talk about them. If you are talking about these changes with the person, it is important to be caring, non-judgemental, and respectful. You should find a quiet place to talk and ask questions, and use words that are easy to understand.

Other ways to help someone who may have a psychotic disorder is to encourage them to:

Everyone can make changes to their health and wellbeing when they are ready, even if it is in small steps, and in their own time.

Please note the term ‘mental illness’ has been used in place of ‘mental disorder’ and ‘psychological disorder’ because it is a more common term.

References and further reading

Australian Integrated Mental Health Initiative. (2005). Grow strong mental health (pp. 50). Darwin: Menzies School of Health Research

Cairney, S., Nagel, T., Thompson, C., Fitz, J., & Benitez, J. (2007). The mental health brain story (pp. 41). Darwin: Menzies School of Health Research

Freeman, D., & Freeman, B. (2009). Aboriginal social and emotional wellbeing fact sheet series. Campbelltown, NSW: Campbelltown Community Mental Health Service (SSWAHS)

Hunter, E., Gynther, B., Anderson, C., Onnis, L. A., Groves, A., & Nelson, J. (2011). Psychosis and its correlates in a remote Indigenous population. Australasian Psychiatry, 19(5), 434-438

Mental Health First Aid Training and Research Program. (2008). Psychosis: guidelines for providing mental health first aid to an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person. Melbourne: Mental Health First Aid

Nagel, T., & Apuatimi, A. (2008). Psychosis. Darwin: Menzies School of Health Research

Steering Committee for the Review of Government Service Provision. (2011). Overcoming Indigenous disadvantage: key indicators 2011. Canberra: Productivity Commission, Australia

© Australian Indigenous HealthInfoNet 2013 
This product, excluding the Australian Indigenous HealthInfoNet logo, artwork, and any material owned by a third party or protected by a trademark, has been released under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 3.0 (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0) licence. Excluded material owned by third parties may include, for example, design and layout, images obtained under licence from third parties and signatures.


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    Last updated: 19 May 2016
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