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Schizoaffective disorder

Explains what schizoaffective disorder is, including its symptoms and causes. Gives advice on how you can help yourself and what types of treatment and support are available, as well as guidance for friends and family.

What causes schizoaffective disorder?

Some controversy exists surrounding the diagnosis of schizoaffective disorder due to the similarity of experiences with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.

The cause of schizoaffective disorder is not yet known, and research into it is happening all the time. Rather than a single cause it is generally agreed that schizoaffective disorder is likely to be caused by a combination of factors, such as:

Stressful life events

You may be able to link the start of your symptoms to a very stressful period in your life, such as:

This is more likely to be a cause if you experienced stressful or traumatic events when you were too young to know how to cope with them, or had not been cared for in a way that helped you to develop coping skills.

See our pages on managing stress for more information on the links between stress and mental health.

Childhood trauma

Some experts believe that experiencing a lot of emotional distress as a child can cause you to develop bipolar disorder. This can include experiences like:

  • sexual or physical abuse
  • neglect
  • traumatic events
  • losing someone very close to you, such as a parent or carer.

This could be because experiencing trauma and distress as a child can have a big effect on your ability to regulate your emotions.

Brain chemistry

Some chemicals seem to behave differently in the brains of people who experience schizoaffective disorder. These chemicals are thought to include dopamine, which helps to carry messages between brain cells.

One theory is that people with schizoaffective disorder have more dopamine in their brains, or that dopamine has different effects for them. Some research suggests that other chemicals are involved too.

Antipsychotics, which are sometimes used to reduce symptoms of psychosis or schizophrenia, can help to lower dopamine levels.

For more information see our page on antipsychotics.

Does schizoaffective disorder run in families?

If you experience schizoaffective disorder, you are more likely to have a close family member who also experiences symptoms and moods (though they might not have a diagnosis).

However, this does not necessarily mean that there is a 'schizoaffective gene' – family links are likely to be much more complex. For example, researchers think that environmental factors can also be triggers for experiencing symptoms of schizoaffective disorder, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. And for most people, family members are an influential part of your environment as you grow up.

We do not know why someone might develop schizoaffective symptoms rather than schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. It may be, as some research suggests, that all of these conditions are on a spectrum of ways that individuals may be affected by life events.

"I have a long family history of mental health problems, my Dad and his twin had a diagnosis of schizophrenia and my Mum and her Mum had a diagnosis of bipolar."

This information was published in May 2019. We will revise it in 2022.

References and bibliography available on request.

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