Perceptual Distortions in Young Adulthood May Predict Later Schizophrenia Symptoms

“Schizophrenia researchers have long been puzzled about why the illness normally begins in adolescence when important risk factors such as genetic loading and neonatal brain damage are present from birth or sooner,” wrote Colorado Recovery founder Richard Warner, M.D., in The Environment of Schizophrenia. “Many believe that the answer to this puzzle could tell us a lot about the cause of the illness.”

Schizophrenia is often diagnosed well into adulthood, typically from the late teens to early 40s.  Researchers recently found new clues in young adults that could help predict the severity of symptoms later in life. According to a study published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology, “Early detection of subtle, nonpsychotic forms of perceptual disturbance may aid in identifying individuals at increased risk for nonaffective psychosis outcomes in adulthood. Perceptual aberrations may constitute a useful endophenotype for genetic, neurobiological, and cognitive neuroscience investigations of schizophrenia liability.” 

Study author Mark F. Lenzenweger, Ph.D., of the State University of New York at Binghamton and Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City found that subtle differences in perception during their late-teen years predicted the development of hallucinations, delusions, and, in some instances, psychosis later in life. These early perceptual distortions included a heightened awareness of sound or color, uncertainty about the boundaries of one’s body, feeling that the world around them is tilting, and similar experiences.

“We discovered that people, who were free of psychotic illness at age 18, would show hallucination and delusion symptoms in mid-life if they showed many very subtle disturbances in their perception early on,” he said. Anxiety and depression played no role in the development of psychotic symptoms in mid-life, Lenzenweger added.

The precise causes of illnesses such as schizophrenia are largely unknown, although genetics and brain-based factors are known to play an essential role. Approximately 3.5 million people have the illness in the United States, with an estimated annual healthcare cost of more than $155 billion.

“These new findings point to a specific focus for future research to drill more deeply into the biological factors driving psychotic illness and real-world experiences in the form of perceptual disturbances,” Lenzenweger said. “Understanding the nature of such perceptual aberrations might provide more clues as to what is going on in the development of schizophrenia and other similar conditions.”

The Colorado Recovery treatment model emphasizes the experience of empowerment, the strengthening of social relationships, and overall support for people with schizophrenia to improve all aspects of their lives. Our treatment facility provides the services needed to address schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and other serious mental illnesses which are specific to each individual. Call us at 720-218-4068 to discuss treatment options for you or the person you would like to help.

Words That Stigmatize

“Since first being diagnosed with depression and generalized anxiety in my early 20s, I felt the stigma of being considered ‘abnormal,’” remembered journalist and author Steven Petrow in a recent article in the Washington Post. Petrow often used to hear friends use pejorative words like “nuts,” “psycho,” “schizo,” “insane” and “looney tune” as general insults to anyone for any transgression. The not-so-subtle message he perceived: It’s okay to mock those with mental health issues—that “we are somehow weird, stupid, scary, or dangerous.”

Sadly, the stigmatization of people with mental health issues has a long history.

“Research on the stigma of mental illness has been fueled by interest in labeling theory. Once a deviant person has been labeled ‘mentally ill,’ argues sociologist Thomas Scheff, society responds in accordance with a pre-determined stereotype, and the individual is launched on a career of chronic mental illness from which there is little opportunity for escape.” wrote Colorado Recovery founder Richard Warner in his 1985 book Recovery from Schizophrenia.

Those stereotypes are largely still with us. And they are still exacerbating the mental health issues of many Americans. 

“Stigmatizing language can become a stumbling block to treatment and support and increases the likelihood of these problems worsening before treatment is instituted,” Petrow wrote in the Washington Post. “According to the American Psychiatric Association, more than half of people with mental illness don’t get help for their disorders because they fear being treated differently or losing their jobs.”

When the Warner model of treating mental illness is all about empowerment, stigmatization is all about discrimination and disenfranchisement. Recovery from mental illness is about more than just controlling symptoms and staying out of psychiatric hospitals. It is about regaining a sense of identity, belonging, and purpose in life.

Empowerment is essential if people with mental health issues are to overcome the prejudices that many Americans still carry with them: the stereotype that makes them believe a person with a mental illness is incapable, unpredictable, even violent, and worthless. 

Before his death in 2015, the late Dr. Warner noted that “popular television programs often depict people with mental illness as dangerously violent.” A 1992 study found that an astonishing 58 percent of respondents considered “lack of discipline” a cause for mental illness.  Almost three decades later, Petrow makes a similar point, noting how Piers Morgan, a British television personality, criticized tennis player Naomi Osaka after she quit the French Open for mental health reasons as “an arrogant spoiled brat” who was “weaponizing mental health to justify her boycott.” 

Gymnast Simone Biles didn’t fare much better after citing mental health concerns as her reason for pulling out of several Olympic competitions in Tokyo. “Media representation of the mentally ill have shown little improvement since the Second World War,” wrote Dr. Warner in The Environment of Schizophrenia (2000).

It may slowly be changing for the better now. Petrow’s niece, “a 21-year-old college senior, lives with generalized anxiety disorder, adjustment disorder, and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder but has made clear she does not feel stigmatized. Her grandmother, my mom, would be proud of her openness and that she has sought treatment at a relatively early age.”

When Petrow asked her about the mean-spirited words some directed at Biles, she replied: “The language of belittling it, just putting ‘mental health issues’ in quotes, that’s super problematic because it’s making a serious issue. You just can’t do that anymore. That’s not where we’re at as a society, at least not in my generation.”

Our modern, non-institutional approach to living with mental health disorders is focused on individual empowerment and provides the services needed to address schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and other serious conditions. Call us at 720-218-4068 to discuss treatment options for you or the person you would like to help.

Employment Support at IOP Level

Colorado Recovery has expanded services outside our signature continuum of care. We are now admitting directly into our intensive outpatient program (IOP) clients who may be ready to begin their recovery at the IOP level of care, or for those in the process of stepping down from another program. One of the offerings now available at the IOP level is our employment group.

Meaningful employment is an important aspect of the treatment model originated by our late founder, Richard Warner. Clinical research shows that employment can improve outcomes of mental health treatment. “Several studies have shown that patients discharged from psychiatric hospital who have a job are much less likely to be readmitted to hospital than those who are unemployed, regardless of the patient’s level of pathology,” Dr. Warner wrote The Environment of Schizophrenia

“Finding suitable employment for clients as part of their treatment plan is the task of the employment group,” explains relocation counselor Dalma Farkas. “Clients learn and practice social skills which are essential for job searches and placements. Participants receive continued support, assistance, and encouragement—from each other as well—to successfully get back into the labor market.”

Employment support includes helping clients find a job, go back to school, or find volunteer work in the community. The group covers a lot of territory: how to write a stellar resume, how to prepare for a job interview, and how to keep a job.

Farkas usually gets things rolling with a thorough career assessment. “I ask them what they would like to do, what’s their dream job? I inquire about their job record and also find out what didn’t work for them to avoid bad experiences in the future.”

The trick is not to overwhelm clients. “We choose two to three job openings, but not more. We work on the resume to fit the job description. And, of course, we prepare clients for job interviews, going over a lot of possible questions like ‘Where do you see yourself in five years?’ or ‘What is this gap in your resume?’ We prepare at least 20-25 questions.” says Farkas. “They practice every day and when they get the job, we’re not done, either. We check in, ask how it is going, and inquire about the stress levels. Every client is different and has different needs so we need to be attentive and flexible.”

Sometimes, Farkas recommends a short job experience just to practice being in a work environment. Many clients don’t have an extensive employment history, they are typically young people who haven’t had much of a career, so they require quite a bit of help.

“Often, they don’t really know what to do, that’s where I come in,” says Farkas. “They may have tried the wrong job with long shifts that exacerbated their symptoms. We’re using those work experiences to find the right job for them. We avoid stressful, triggering places to avoid a relapse.”

The Warner model is all about empowerment through engagement because if people with mental illness lack a useful social role, they “face lives of profound purposelessness,” as Dr. Warner wrote. Like most of us, they are much healthier if they care passionately about their job. 

“I try to find jobs for our clients that are also their passion,” says Farkas. “Employment that still allows for recreational activities. Not a job that makes them go home exhausted and that makes their symptoms worse. Employment is supposed to improve their health after all.”

Another option is volunteer work. “Most of them have never volunteered before but Boulder offers many fantastic options here, one of my clients recently volunteered at a local museum,” recalls Farkas. “It turned out to be perfect for her—she is the happiest person now.”

For more information about direct admission to our intensive outpatient program or our other services, connect with a specialist who can answer your questions at (720) 218-4068.

Assessing Cognitive Symptoms in Schizophrenia

Cognitive dysfunction is a core feature of schizophrenia, wrote Christopher Bowie and Philip Harvey in their study “Cognitive deficits and functional outcome in schizophrenia.”

“Deficits are moderate to severe across several domains, including attention, working memory, verbal learning and memory, and executive functions. These deficits pre-date the onset of frank psychosis and are stable throughout the course of the illness in most patients.” 

It is now widely recognized that these deficits are among the best predictors of functional outcomes in schizophrenia. In a recent presentation for Psych Congress Network, Leslie Citrome, MD, MPH, clinical professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at New York Medical College, Valhalla, NY, discussed the significance of cognition in schizophrenia. 

“We’ve known for quite some time about the positive symptoms of schizophrenia, such as delusions and hallucinations, and the negative symptoms of schizophrenia, such as the lack of motivation, lack of interest, and difficulty in expressing emotion,” Dr. Citrome explained.

“We’ve also learned to acknowledge the existence of cognitive dysfunction. Problems, for example, with verbal fluency, with paying attention, with problem-solving. At the same time, we’ve also paid more attention to the affective symptoms of schizophrenia. These overlap somewhat with negative symptoms.”

Cognitive impairment is quite common in people with schizophrenia. This has been confirmed by a number of studies. For example, in a 2019 study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, Zanelli, Mollon, et al. found that patients with schizophrenia and other psychoses had a cognitive decline in memory, verbal learning, and vocabulary over a 10-year period. 

“Cognitive impairment occurs in first-episode and chronic schizophrenia,” said Dr. Citrome. “We can observe that people with schizophrenia have a lower degree of cognitive abilities, relative to the general population, right from the beginning.” 

Cognitive dysfunction can serve as an early warning sign. “This can be apparent at the very first episode. In fact, can predate the first episode of psychosis,” said Citrome. “People who are in the prodrome, or even in their childhood or adolescence, can exhibit some degree of cognitive impairment.” 

It’s not always easy to detect cognitive impairment associated with schizophrenia. In his presentation, Citrome explained some of the diagnostic tools. “Cognition in clinical trials with schizophrenia can be formally assessed using neuropsychological testing. The standard today is to use a battery of tests called the MATRICS Consensus Cognitive Battery or MCCB.”

The MCCB consists of 10 tests that include testing the speed of processing, attention or vigilance, working memory, verbal learning, visual learning, reasoning and problem-solving, and social cognition.

Measuring cognition has an important purpose. “Cognitive deficits do predict functional outcomes,” explained Dr. Citrome. Testing cognition “helps us predict how well someone will function.” 

Current research appears to indicate that the existence of positive schizophrenia symptoms may not necessarily impair functioning, but impairment of cognition can lead to impairment in functioning, and negative symptoms may impair functioning.

That means that “hallucinations and delusions by themselves aren’t going to be the determinants whether someone can work or have social relationships,” said Citrome. “It’s going to be negative symptoms and cognitive impairment.” 

The Colorado Recovery treatment model emphasizes the experience of empowerment, the strengthening of social relationships, and overall support for people with schizophrenia to improve all aspects of their lives. “Recovery from mental illness is about more than just getting rid of the symptoms and staying out of hospital. It is about regaining a sense of identity, belonging, and meaning in life,” said the late Richard Warner, M.D. and founder of Colorado Recovery. 

Our treatment facility provides the services needed to address schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and other serious mental illnesses which are specific to each individual. Call us at 720-218-4068 to discuss treatment options for you or the person you would like to help.

The Correlation of Mental Health and Substance Use Disorders

According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 9.5 million adults in the United States experienced both mental illness and a substance use disorder (SUD) in 2019. It’s a well-known correlation, complicating the treatment of the mental health disorder and the SUD.

“Many individuals who develop substance use disorders are also diagnosed with mental disorders, and vice versa,” explains an information page of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). “Multiple national population surveys have found that about half of those who experience a mental illness during their lives will also experience a substance use disorder and vice versa.”

Mental health conditions and SUDs are frequently co-occurring because many people with addiction are primarily misusing addictive substances to self-medicate emotional pain caused by serious mental health disorders. 

According to NIDA, “Data show high rates of comorbid substance use disorders and anxiety disorders—which include generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Substance use disorders also co-occur at high prevalence with mental disorders, such as depression and bipolar disorder, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), psychotic illness, borderline personality disorder, and antisocial personality disorder. Patients with schizophrenia have higher rates of alcohol, tobacco, and drug use disorders than the general population.”  

Trauma in particular is an important predictor for substance misuse. According to PTSD United, 70 percent of adults in the US have experienced some type of traumatic event at least once in their lives, and 20 percent of those adults suffer from PTSD. Many traumatized people self-medicate with alcohol and drugs. “For many, if not most, people with addiction, trauma is perhaps the critical factor that causes the problem,” writes addiction expert Maia Szalavitz in her influential book Unbroken Brain.

The combination of bipolar disorder and substance misuse may be particularly challenging to diagnose and treat successfully. “Comorbid bipolar disorder and substance use disorder are frequently the rule rather than the exception,” wrote Suzanne Bujara on Psychiatry Advisor. “Bipolar disorder has among the highest rates of comorbidities, including anxiety disorders, obsessive compulsive disorder, impulse control disorders, eating disorders, cardiovascular and respiratory disorders, and sleep apnea. Not only are comorbid bipolar disorder and substance use disorder difficult to manage, but they also increase a patient’s likelihood for chronic infectious diseases, injury, and suicide.” 

Co-occuring mental health and substance use disorders should be addressed concurrently in a comprehensive treatment program addressing all needs of such patients. “Dual diagnosis” is a term used to describe the presence of addiction and other co-occurring mental health conditions. 

Colorado Recovery understands the importance of coordinated and integrative treatment care and provides substance use services to all clients who require them as part of a specialized dual diagnosis track. We recognize that many of our clients have employed non-prescribed substances to control the symptoms of their mental illness, and as a consequence may have exacerbated their health issues. 

The treatment process at Colorado Recovery starts with evidence-based assessment instruments that help a client understand the severity of their substance use disorder. Colorado Recovery uses the Substance Abuse Subtle Screening Inventory (SASSI-4) an empirically tested tool with a high-reliability rate. We also use the Addiction Severity Index (ASI-6) which was introduced in 1980 and it is probably the most widely used instrument to assess the severity of substance use disorders. Colorado Recovery also has the ability to administer screening tools to assist in identifying gambling and internet addiction disorders.

Colorado Recovery provides the services needed to address schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and other serious mental illnesses which are specific to each individual. Call us at 720-218-4068 to discuss treatment options for you or the person you would like to help.