Many of us have had times when we felt like our mind was “playing tricks” on us. For a moment, we thought we heard our name spoken, or we smelled something that didn’t seem to have a source. This kind of experience is fairly common and something most people can safely laugh off and forget about.
But for about one percent of people in the world, these moments of hearing, seeing, or smelling things that aren’t really there are signs of a more serious situation. These people may have thoughts and perceptions about the world and people around them that are not based in reality. For example, they might think that someone is talking to them on a regular basis—someone who is not really there. People whose minds are having thoughts that don’t match reality are most likely affected by a mental illness called psychosis.
Psychosis is a serious mental illness that carries the potential for serious consequences on a person’s life, affecting the ability to work, form relationships and function on a day-to-day basis. It usually starts in a person’s late teens or early 20s and lasts over their life. The good news is, it’s treatable. If psychosis is identified and treated early, there is a good chance that they'll get much better.
The cause of psychosis is not known, but we do know that having a family member with the disease increases a person’s risk. We also know that using cannabis (marijuana) in the teen years produces changes in the brain that put users at a higher risk of psychosis. But this brain disorder can happen to anyone.
Signs and symptoms
There are signs of early psychosis to watch for. A young person may become listless, sullen, or withdrawn. They might want to stay in bed all day, or stop showering or caring about their schoolwork or friends. They might act anxious, suspicious, or disoriented. And, they might become extremely sensitive to sounds, smells, light, colours, and touch sensations.
Young people with psychosis often say they feel like their mind is playing tricks on them. They may describe seeing things that aren’t there, or having thoughts no one else shares with them. They may feel they can’t trust anyone or appreciate the things they used to love, like music, the Internet or their cell phones. They might also say their thoughts come too fast—as if they are spiralling out of control—or too slow. They may not be sleeping well and may find it hard to pay attention at school or work, or to remember things the way they used to. A person with psychosis may report feeling sad, angry, or confused about how their thoughts have changed—they just want to feel better.
If a person you know is showing signs like these, let them know you’re concerned they may have an illness in their brain that needs medicine to get better. If this is your friend, talk to their parents to make sure they’re aware it is important they receive professional help. If this is your child, review our resource links and contact IWK Mental Health and Addictions. We have specialized teams who know how to help. We'll work with you and your child for the best possible outcomes.
The brain is a funny thing. For the most part, we take it for granted. It’s there, sits at the top of our body, inside our head. We are told it makes us “tick;” it makes us “work right.” But, just like any other organ in our body, our brain can get sick. Sometimes this is called an illness of the mind or mental illness. When it does get sick, like any illness, it requires medical attention, therapy and care. This is very important because if our brain is sick, it can affect everything we do.
What Is Psychosis?
Psychosis is an experience that is the result of our brain not working right, often because it is ill. Usually our brain allows us to perceive things: smell, taste, touch, sound and sight. The brain allows us then to have thoughts about what we perceive and determines how we react. Psychosis is when this whole process gets messed up, sometimes very messed up. When affected by an illness that causes psychosis, the mind gets confused and creates an experience that is not accurate or that doesn’t make sense. That is, it doesn’t match what is really happening. For example, hearing sounds such as your name called in the school hallway when no one is there. This kind of experience can happen to anyone, and does. Actually, about eight per cent of people have experiences like that. Usually we shake it off, laugh or ignore it. However, for the one per cent of people who experience psychosis as an illness, it can become frequent and so strong that it becomes hard to ignore. After awhile, one begins to believe that someone is actually talking to them. This can be very confusing. Young people with psychosis often describe feeling as if their mind is playing tricks on them. Sometimes they describe also seeing things that aren’t actually there. Others report having thoughts that do not seem real or thoughts that no one else shares with them. Some young people have described psychosis as affecting their ability to trust others or appreciate things they used to love such as music, the internet or their cell phones. Psychosis can also change how we think. Sometimes thoughts come too fast, as if they are spiralling out of control; or too slow. Some people with psychosis find it way harder to pay attention in school or at work. Sleeping can be difficult. Many say they can’t remember things the way they used to. Psychosis can also make one feel sad, angry or confused because of how thoughts have changed; they just want to feel better.
If you think any of the above information sounds familiar to you, if you’ve wondered about your brain/mind in this way at all or if you have seen these signs in a friend or family member, it might be worth talking to someone about it. For most people, having an occasional odd experience is normal. However, for some, the experience is distressing and it is worth asking for help.
How can I get help?
Even if it means talking to someone about the experiences or just going for an assessment, early identification can make all the difference because psychosis is treatable. The earlier it is identified and treatment starts, the better the outcomes. Many who seek help are able to return to their lives before psychosis started. There are people available to listen to your concerns and programs available that specialize in psychosis: