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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 are the symptoms of schizoaffective disorder?

Two main types of symptoms occur with schizoaffective disorder:

Both sets of symptoms must be present within a two week period of each other for a diagnosis of schizoaffective disorder to be made.

Psychotic symptoms

These are experiences similar to those experienced in schizophrenia, including:

  • Hallucinations - where you may experience things that others around you don't. For example hearing voices, seeing visual hallucinations and other unexplained sensations.
  • Delusions - where you might hold strong beliefs that other people don't share. For instance a fear that you are being followed, your thoughts are being read, you are very powerful and able to influence things outside of your control, or that you have special insight or divine experiences.

"I was constantly talking, jumping from one subject to another without making much sense."

In general, you may feel:

  • your thoughts becoming very disorientated
  • very confused or frightened
  • angry
  • depressed
  • excited and elated.

But these feelings can be managed with the right combination of support, treatment and self-care.

See our page on psychosis, or visit Intervoice or The Hearing Voices Network for more information.

"One of the peculiar thoughts I experienced was that I was being headhunted by a company for a job, which definitely never happened, it was just an idea in my head that I had convinced myself was true."

male smiling

My experience with psychosis

"I was taken to the nearest hospital with my mum and dad, where the doctors decided I had to be sectioned."

Mood symptoms

The mood symptoms are similar to those experienced in bipolar disorder and include both manic and depressive symptoms:

  • Manic symptoms - can include feeling uncontrollably excited or enthusiastic about something, making plans that are quite unrealistic, or risk-taking behaviour.
  • Depressive symptoms - where you might feel, amongst other things, sad and lonely, wanting to sleep a great deal, like you can't relate to other people, or suicidal.

People diagnosed with 'mixed type' schizoaffective disorder might switch between mania and depression in a short time. Cycles of mania and depression can occur at fairly regular intervals, although this varies from person to person.

See our pages on bipolar disorder, mania and hypomania and depression for more information.

"On my bad days, I felt I was a pathetic coward who didn't deserve to breathe, and on my good days I believed I was a god in waiting."

Is schizoaffective disorder similar to schizophrenia or bipolar?

Schizoaffective disorder is its own diagnosis. However, when someone is experiencing both psychotic and mood symptoms at the same time, it can be difficult to determine what they are experiencing and how best to understand and classify these experiences.

Schizoaffective disorder, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder can all involve:

  • feelings of elation for extended periods
  • rapid speech
  • racing thoughts
  • risk-taking behaviors
  • agitation
  • delusions
  • hallucinations.

The latest version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) includes each of these disorders and gives them their own place within the same section. Several characteristics highlight why each disorder is unique and stands on its own. These features point to schizoaffective disorder:

  • A longer first episode (at least 1 month) of simultaneous psychotic and mood symptoms
  • Social difficulties and problems with self-care aren't as noticeable as they are in schizophrenia.

"My problems were not picked up as a teenager, which resulted in a crisis in my early 20s, involving hospital admissions and being severely mentally unwell. The diagnosis of schizoaffective disorder seemed to fit with my experience better than any other 'label' or diagnosis."

Despite its similarities to both schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, schizoaffective disorder is commonly seen as a psychotic disorder with significant mood features, rather than a mood disorder with psychosis.

Like any other mental health problem, the experiences that can lead to a schizoaffective disorder diagnosis are different person to person, so while the standard criteria must be met for a diagnosis, each person meets those criteria differently.

A psychiatrist will make a diagnosis after assessing your symptoms, how long you have had them, and the way the psychotic and mood symptoms occur (either together or separately) during episodes.

Ruling out other conditions

Diagnosing schizoaffective disorder can be difficult and symptoms can sometimes be confused with other conditions.

Possible physical causes of symptoms need to be ruled out so a physical exam may be done to help rule out any conditions that might be causing symptoms. For example, an under- or over-active thyroid can cause some of the same symptoms (tiredness, depression, mood swings, anxiety), so thyroid function should be checked before somebody is given a diagnosis.

"At first I was diagnosed with depression, postpartum psychosis, and then finally schizoaffective disorder. I had to do a lot of research myself to understand what I was going through better, which was difficult."

Recreational drugs can also cause some of the same symptoms, so it might be useful for your doctor to know if you are using any (or have done in the past).

Some people experience psychotic symptoms during a period of severe depression or a period of severe mania. But in order to receive a schizoaffective disorder diagnosis, you would also need to have experienced the psychotic symptoms on their own without the mood symptoms.

If you have a diagnosis of schizophrenia and experience a short episode of depression, this would not mean that your diagnosis should be changed to schizoaffective disorder.

Differences between diagnoses are quite subtle, and you may be given different diagnoses at different times by different psychiatrists. See our information on recognising triggers to see what could be useful to share with your psychiatrist when discussing diagnosis.

For more information see our pages on schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, psychosis, depression and hypomania and mania.

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

References and bibliography available on request.

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