What is psychosis?

Kelly Davis, Mental Health America

Psychosis is a term used to describe changes in a person’s experiences, behaviors, and thoughts where there is a break in reality. People who have psychosis struggle with knowing if something is real or not real.

  • Perception: a person to might hear sounds or voices that others don’t; see trails, ghost-like shadows or wavy lines; have heightened sensitivity to light, sound, or touch; or have a decreased sense of smell.

  • Behaviors: a person can withdraw from family and friends; experience anger or fear towards loved ones; have changes in sleep, including reversal, where a person sleeps during the day and is awake at night; changes in appetite; decreased attention to personal hygiene; behaviors that are strange or seemingly uncharacteristic; incoherent or bizarre speech or writing; or a dramatic drop in ability to function at work or school.

  • Thoughts: a person can feel disconnected or numb about important situations; feel that things aren’t real or quite right; that something is happening to their thoughts or that they are constantly being watched; extreme fear for no apparent reason; extreme preoccupation or fears that seem bizarre; or like they can’t focus or remember things.

While the word psychosis is sometimes used interchangeably with schizophrenia, psychosis is the umbrella term to describe symptoms, while schizophrenia is a specific type of mental illness. Psychosis can experienced by people with different health conditions and mental health disorders, including bipolar disorder, depression, and substance use disorder. Periods of intense stress or little to no sleep can cause a person with no prior history of mental health issues to briefly experience psychosis.

Experiencing psychosis can be scary and confusing, and friends and family may not know what to do when they want to help. It’s important to keep in mind when offering support that whatever a person is experiencing is real to them.

The good news is that recovery is possible. Whether it is a single experience with psychosis or something that occurs throughout a person’s life, people who experience psychosis can live full, meaningful lives and contribute to their communities. Treatment, services, and supports are available to help people develop a plan based on what they need and want to achieve.

 If you or someone you care about is struggling with psychosis, it’s important to reach out for professional help as soon as possible. The earlier an individual gets support and treatment, the better!   

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