Treating schizophrenia 

Schizophrenia is usually treated with an individually tailored combination of therapy and medication.

Good schizophrenia care

The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) has produced guidelines outlining how people with schizophrenia should be cared for.

NICE recommends anyone providing treatment and care for people with schizophrenia should:

  • work in partnership with people with schizophrenia and their carers
  • offer help, treatment and care in an atmosphere of hope and optimism
  • take time to build supportive and empathic relationships as an essential part of care

Read the NICE guidance on schizophrenia.

In July 2012, the government launched a new mental health implementation framework to help ensure the No Health Without Mental Health strategy, which aims to improve mental health and wellbeing, becomes reality.

Community mental health teams hide

Most people with schizophrenia are treated by community mental health teams (CMHTs). The goal of the CMHT is to provide day-to-day support and treatment while ensuring you have as much independence as possible.

A CMHT can be made up of and provide access to:

  • social workers
  • community mental health nurses – a nurse with specialist training in mental health conditions
  • occupational therapists
  • pharmacists
  • counsellors and psychotherapists 
  • psychologists and psychiatrists – the psychiatrist is usually the senior clinician in the team

After your first episode of schizophrenia, you should initially be referred to an early intervention team. These specialist teams provide treatment and support, and are usually made up of psychiatrists, psychologists, mental health nurses, social workers and support workers.

back to top

Care programme approach (CPA) show

People with complex mental health conditions, such as schizophrenia, are usually entered into a treatment process known as a care programme approach (CPA). A CPA is essentially a way of ensuring you receive the right treatment for your needs.

There are four stages to a CPA:

  • assessment – your health and social needs are assessed
  • care plan – a care plan is created to meet your health and social needs
  • care co-ordinator appointed – a care co-ordinator, sometimes known as a key worker, is usually a social worker or nurse, and is your first point of contact with other members of the CMHT
  • reviews – your treatment will be regularly reviewed and, if needed, changes to the care plan can be agreed

Not everyone uses the CPA. Some people may be cared for by their GP, while others may be under the care of a specialist.

You will work together with your healthcare team to develop a care plan. The care plan may involve an advance statement or crisis plan, which can be followed in an emergency.   

Your care plan should include a combined healthy eating and physical activity programme and, if you smoke, support for giving up.  

Your care co-ordinator will be responsible for making sure all members of your healthcare team, including your GP, have a copy of your care plan.

Want to know more? 

  • Rethink Mental Illness: care programme approach fact sheet (PDF, 483kb)
  •  

    back to top

    Acute episodes show

    People who have serious psychotic symptoms as the result of an acute schizophrenic episode may require a more intensive level of care than a CMHT can provide.

    These episodes are usually dealt with by antipsychotic medication and special care.

    Crisis resolution teams (CRT)

    One treatment option is to contact a home treatment or crisis resolution team (CRT). CRTs treat people with serious mental health conditions who are currently experiencing an acute and severe psychiatric crisis. Without the involvement of the CRT, these people would require treatment in hospital.

    The CRT aims to treat people in the least restrictive environment possible, ideally in or near their home. This can be in your own home, in a dedicated crisis residential home or hostel, or in a day care centre.

    CRTs are also responsible for planning aftercare once the crisis has passed to prevent a further crisis from occurring.

    Your care co-ordinator should be able to provide you and your friends or family with contact information in the event of a crisis.

    Voluntary and compulsory detention

    More serious acute schizophrenic episodes may require admission to a psychiatric ward at a hospital or clinic. You can admit yourself voluntarily to hospital if your psychiatrist agrees it is necessary.

    People can also be compulsorily detained at a hospital under the Mental Health Act (2007), but this is rare. It is only possible for someone to be compulsorily detained at a hospital if they have a severe mental disorder, such as schizophrenia, and if detention is necessary: 

    • in the interests of the person's own health and safety
    • to protect others

    People with schizophrenia who are compulsorily detained may need to be kept in locked wards.

    All people being treated in hospital will stay only as long as is absolutely necessary for them to receive appropriate treatment and arrange aftercare.

    An independent panel will regularly review your case and progress. Once they feel you are no longer a danger to yourself and others, you will be discharged from hospital. However, your care team may recommend you remain in hospital voluntarily.

    Advance statements

    If it is felt there is a significant risk of future acute schizophrenic episodes occurring, you may want to write an advance statement.

    An advance statement is a series of written instructions about what you would like your family or friends to do in case you experience another acute schizophrenic episode. You may also want to include contact details for your care co-ordinator.

    If you want to make an advance statement, talk to your care co-ordinator, psychiatrist or GP.

    Want to know more?

    back to top

    Antipsychotics show

    Antipsychotics are usually recommended as the initial treatment for the symptoms of an acute schizophrenic episode. They work by blocking the effect of the chemical dopamine on the brain.

    Antipsychotics can usually reduce feelings of anxiety or aggression within a few hours of use, but may take several days or weeks to reduce other symptoms, such as hallucinations or delusional thoughts.

    It's important that your doctor gives you a thorough physical examination before you start taking antipsychotics, and that you work together to find the right one for you.

    Antipsychotics can be taken orally (as a pill) or given as an injection (known as a depot). Several slow-release antipsychotics are available. These require you to have one injection every two to four weeks.

    You may only need antipsychotics until your acute schizophrenic episode has passed. However, most people take medication for one or two years after their first psychotic episode to prevent further acute schizophrenic episodes occurring, and for longer if the illness is recurrent.

    There are two main types of antipsychotics:

    • typical antipsychotics – the first generation of antipsychotics developed during the 1950s
    • atypical antipsychotics – newer-generation antipsychotics developed in the 1990s

    The choice of antipsychotic should be made following a discussion between you and your psychiatrist about the likely benefits and side effects.

    Both typical and atypical antipsychotics can cause side effects, although not everyone will experience them and the severity will differ from person to person.

    The side effects of typical antipsychotics include:

    • shaking
    • trembling
    • muscle twitches
    • muscle spasms

    Side effects of both typical and atypical antipsychotics include:

    • drowsiness 
    • weight gain, particularly with some atypical antipsychotics
    • blurred vision
    • constipation
    • lack of sex drive
    • dry mouth

    Tell your care co-ordinator, psychiatrist or GP if your side effects become severe. There may be an alternative antipsychotic you can take or additional medicines that will help you deal with the side effects.

    If you do not benefit from one antipsychotic medication after taking it regularly for several weeks, an alternative can be tried. It is important that you work with your treatment team to find the right one for you.

    Do not stop taking your antipsychotics without first consulting your care co-ordinator, psychiatrist or GP. If you stop taking them, you could have a relapse of symptoms.

    Your medication should be reviewed at least once a year.

    See our medicines guide for schizophrenia.

    Want to know more?

    back to top

    Psychological treatment show

    Psychological treatment can help people with schizophrenia cope with the symptoms of hallucinations or delusions better. They can also help treat some of the negative symptoms of schizophrenia, such as apathy or a lack of enjoyment.

    Psychological treatments for schizophrenia work best when they are combined with antipsychotic medication. Common psychological treatments include:

    Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)

    Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) aims to help you identify the thinking patterns that are causing you to have unwanted feelings and behaviour, and learn to replace this thinking with more realistic and useful thoughts.

    For example, you may be taught to recognise examples of delusional thinking. You may then receive help and advice about how to avoid acting on these thoughts.

    Most people will require between 8 and 20 sessions of CBT over the space of 6 to 12 months. CBT sessions usually last for about an hour.

    Your GP or care co-ordinator should be able to arrange a referral to a CBT therapist.

    Family therapy

    Many people with schizophrenia rely on family members for their care and support. While most family members are happy to help, caring for somebody with schizophrenia can place a strain on any family.

    Family therapy is a way of helping you and your family cope better with your condition. It involves a series of informal meetings over a period of around six months. Meetings may include:

    • discussing information about schizophrenia
    • exploring ways of supporting somebody with schizophrenia
    • deciding how to solve practical problems that can be caused by the symptoms of schizophrenia

    If you think you and your family could benefit from family therapy, speak to your care co-ordinator or GP.

    Arts therapy

    Arts therapies are designed to promote creative expression. Working with an arts therapist in a small group or individually can allow you to express your experiences with schizophrenia.

    Some people find expressing things in a non-verbal way through the arts can provide a new experience of schizophrenia and help them develop new ways of relating to others.

    Arts therapies have been shown to alleviate the negative symptoms of schizophrenia in some people.

    NICE recommends that arts therapies are provided by an arts therapist registered with the Health and Care Professions Council who has experience of working with people with schizophrenia.

    Want to know more?

    back to top

    Psychosis: Sarah's story

    Sarah, 19, describes her experience of psychosis. Find out how early help from local services can help young people who live with mental illness.

    Media last reviewed: 22/04/2015

    Next review due: 22/04/2017

    Five steps to mental wellbeing

    Good mental wellbeing means feeling good and functioning well. Improve your mental wellbeing

    Page last reviewed: 01/10/2014

    Next review due: 01/10/2016