What is psychosis?
Psychosis is an experience where a person has problems interpreting the real world. They might see or hear things that other people can’t, or have unusual ideas or beliefs. This can affect their thoughts, feelings and behaviour.
Psychosis is often frightening for the person going through it and misunderstood by those around them. But it can be treated. Most people who experience psychosis make a good recovery and go on to lead healthy, productive lives.
Psychotic experiences are more common than many people think. People often choose not to talk about them because of stigma and misunderstanding.
Psychosis is a serious issue that calls for professional clinical help – it can have a big impact on a person’s life, and should never be ignored. It's important to get help early to increase chances for a quicker more complete recovery.
Download our fact sheet on psychosis
What are the symptoms of psychosis?
Confused thinking: Everyday thoughts can become confused, making sentences unclear or hard to understand. A person might find it hard to concentrate, follow a conversation or remember things. Thoughts can seem to speed up or slow down.
False beliefs (delusions): A person can have strong beliefs in things that aren’t real to other people. They might believe that they’re being followed, that someone is trying to harm them, or that they’re getting secret messages from TV. This can be very scary for the person.
Hallucinations: A person may hear or see something that isn’t actually there. Sometimes other senses like touch, smell or taste can also be affected. For example, they might:
- hear noises or voices that aren’t there
- see things that seem strange, like faces in objects or shadows at the window
- have a strange taste in their mouth
- smell things others can’t
- feel things on their skin that are not there.
Changed emotions: A person may feel strange and cut off from the world. They may seem to feel less emotion, or show less emotion to those around them.
Changed behaviour: A person may be extremely active or find it hard getting the energy to do things. They might laugh when things don't seem funny, or become angry or upset without any obvious reason. The person may stop doing the things they used to do like hanging out with friends and family. The person can seem excited, depressed or irritable for little or no reason obvious to others.
Symptoms of psychosis are different for everyone. They might not be present all the time, have different causes and can change over time.
What are the types of psychosis?
Experiencing psychotic symptoms doesn’t necessarily mean that someone has a psychotic illness. More than three quarters of psychotic experiences don’t progress to a diagnosable illness.
About three in every 100 people are diagnosed with a psychotic illness at some stage in their life. A person is most likely to have their first episode of psychosis in their teens or early twenties.
Many people assume that people experiencing psychosis have schizophrenia. But there are lots of other disorders that have psychotic symptoms, including:
- brief psychotic disorder
- substance/medication-induced psychotic disorder
- bipolar disorder
- major depression with psychotic features
- delusional disorder
Because people’s symptoms often change over time, the type of disorder often changes too. Sometimes people are diagnosed with one thing, and then later the diagnosis is changed or removed if they don’t fit the criteria for that disorder anymore.
What causes psychosis?
Like lots of mental health difficulties, psychosis is caused by a combination of different things. Things like genetics (inherited from parents) and a history of tough times (like trauma and childhood experiences) can make a person more vulnerable to psychosis.
Things people are exposed to in life (or ‘stressors’) can also feed into psychosis. They include:
- drug use
- grief and loss
- difficult times with family or friends
- problems at school or work.
Recovering from psychosis
Psychosis can be frightening, confusing and disruptive, but help is definitely available and with the right help most people get better. The recovery journey is different for everyone. Just like with any illness, recovering from psychosis can be an ongoing process. It’s not just about getting rid of the symptoms – it’s about learning to enjoy life while managing the tough times when they happen.
There can be huge steps forward and things that set a person back. At those times, people can sometimes feel like they’re not getting better – but it’s important to be patient. Recovery takes time, support, and effort.
How do I get help?
If you think you’ve got symptoms of psychosis, it’s a good idea to seek help as soon as possible.
The earlier you get help, the better the results and the quicker your recovery. General Practitioners (GPs) and clinicians at your local mental health service will be able to provide the help you need.
How is psychosis treated?
Treatments for psychosis usually include:
- education about psychosis
- support from family, community and/or mob
- practical support, like helping the person get back to school or work).
When recovering from psychosis, it’s really important to manage other stresses in life. Avoiding alcohol and other drugs and learning better ways to cope with stress can help stop the symptoms from coming back in the future.
headspace Early Psychosis
Some headspace centres can give specialised early psychosis support.
The headspace Early Psychosis program offers early-intervention services to improve the lives of young people, and their families, who are affected by psychosis.
Find out more about the program, and where these services are offered.
If you aren’t near a headspace Early Psychosis program your local headspace centre or eheadspace can still help you get the right support, so it’s always OK to ask.
What does recovery involve?
Recovery may involve:
- getting back a sense of control
- learning how to build and maintain a healthy headspace
- learning to manage symptoms so they have less of an impact on day-to-day life
- learning how to have supportive relationships
- going to school or work
- learning to be more independent.
How do I help someone experiencing psychosis?
It can be frightening to experience psychosis, so try to be calm and supportive. The most important thing is to help the person feel safe and encourage them to get professional help.
- You might want to ask them about what is going on. Listen carefully without judgement – even if they say things that might sound strange.
- Remember the person may be responding to experiences that you’re not aware of.
- Tell them it is OK to talk about their experiences – it won’t make them worse. It can help them feel like they are being heard and that someone understands.
- Don’t feel you need to try to ‘talk them out of’ strange ideas. It can be distressing for them and may make them less likely to open up.
- Connect with the emotion the person is experiencing as opposed to the idea if you can. Asking how they feel about the experience they’re having can help if you’re not sure what to say.
Encourage the young person to get professional treatment as early as possible. Encourage them to speak to a trusted adult such as their parents, a teacher, or maybe their GP, headspace, or other mental health service.
If someone is suggesting they will harm themselves or you’re concerned they might not be safe, call your local mental health service or 000 urgently to arrange specialist attention. Acute mental health teams are specially trained to assist people experiencing psychosis in crisis.
Supporting a person who is experiencing psychosis can be really tough. Make sure you get some support for yourself if you need. You can access support through the treating team or a number of other services. There are also support groups for family and friends of people with psychosis.
Ask your young person’s treating team or contact an online counselling service like eheadspace if you need.
The headspace Clinical Reference Group oversee and approve clinical resources made available on this website.
25 November 2021