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What is Psychosis?

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Updated October 26, 2012

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Definition:

Psychosis is a serious mental health condition in which a person loses touch with reality. The extent to which the person is affected by psychosis varies greatly, with some people appearing to be quite normal, but experiencing some difficulties with their inward thoughts or perceptions, through to people barely being aware of their surroundings.

People experiencing any level of psychosis are said to be "psychotic." The word psychotic is often used incorrectly, for example, to refer to people who are violent. Most people who are psychotic are not, in fact, violent, but psychosis may carry a serious risk of harm to oneself or others, particularly when there is potential for people who are psychotic to misinterpret other people's intentions as harmful or threatening. Therefore, it is important for people who are developing symptoms of psychosis to be assessed for risk of harm by a mental health professional as soon as possible.

Symptoms of Psychosis

Here are the common symptoms of psychosis:

Problems with thinking -- people with psychosis believe things to be true that other people of the same culture do not believe to be true. This doesn't mean anyone with unusual beliefs is psychotic, or that having an usual belief that your friends don't have means you are psychotic. Being psychotic is more severe, in that the person can't figure out what is or isn't real. These problems with thinking are called delusions.

Problems with perception -- commonly called hallucinations, people with psychosis see, hear, feel or otherwise perceive things that aren't really there. They might hear voices that they can't distinguish from their own thoughts or the voices of other people. These are called auditory hallucinations. Or they might see and feel bugs that aren't really there crawling on them, and harm themselves trying to pick them off. Seeing things that aren't there are called visual halluciations, and feeling things that aren't there are called tactile hallucinations. As with the problems with thinking, someone with psychosis can't tell the difference between a hallucination and really perceiving something. This isn't the same as a "trick of the eye" or mishearing or misinterpreting something someone says; the voices are heard when no one is speaking, and are very real to the person with psychosis.

What Causes Psychosis?

Psychosis is a symptom of several mental illnesses, including schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. However, if you or someone you care about appears to have the symptoms of psychosis, it does not necessarily mean that they have one of these mental illnesses. A psychiatric assessment will determine whether or not this is the case.

There are certain psychiatric conditions involving psychosis that can occur in the post-partum period, although this is very unusual, and new mothers often feel and behave differently than usual as they adjust to this life change. Again, a psychiatrist can tell whether there is a problem with psychosis or whether the mother is experiencing another type of difficulty.

Here's the problem for people who use drugs -- psychosis can be caused by drugs such as cocaine, LSD, meth, marijuana, and even large quantities of alcohol. So when someone develops psychosis, it is very important to be honest about any drug use, as the treatment for substance-induced psychosis is very different from the treatment of psychosis that has other causes.

People who use drugs and people with psychosis may both have difficulty trusting healthcare professionals -- they may fear getting in trouble for using illicit drugs, or they may fear that treatments will be forced on them by the medical profession. They may have bizarre beliefs about other people around them generally, or healthcare professionals in particular, and this may be part of the psychosis.

BUT it is important to give your doctor a chance to help you to feel better. The symptoms of psychosis are treatable, and those who are treated can have full and happy lives, particularly if they receive early treatment that is based on accurate information.

If you or anyone you know is at risk of harming themselves or someone else, encourage them to see a doctor as soon as possible. If necessary, they can have a psychiatric assessment against their will, although this would only occur if the person was at imminent risk of harming themselves or someone else.

Also Known As: out of touch with reality
Common Misspellings: psycosis, psykosis, sikosis
Examples:
Cassie experienced substance-induced psychosis after a week-long drug binge.

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