What Is a Psychotic Illness?

T. Broderick
T. Broderick
Use of illegal drugs may may cause psychosis.
Use of illegal drugs may may cause psychosis.
Use of illegal drugs may may cause psychosis.

A psychotic illness, also known as psychosis, is a medical condition that affects an individual's cognition, perception, reasoning and decision making ability. Psychotic illnesses have a number of causes, from genetics to legal and illegal drugs. Symptoms vary; the presentation and progression of symptoms is key in the diagnostic process. Treatment depends on the illness and its severity.

There are three main causes of psychosis: illegal and legal drugs, secondary disorders that affects brain function and psychiatric disorders. The first cause is the most controversial. Researchers disagree whether illegal drug use causes psychosis or awakes symptoms of a pre-existing mental condition. Secondary disorders are other diseases such as cancer or Lyme disease that affect mental functioning. Finally, psychiatric disorders are those that originate in the brain due to one's genetics; schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and clinical depression are just a few examples.

Syphilis, a sexually transmitted disease, may cause psychosis.
Syphilis, a sexually transmitted disease, may cause psychosis.
Syphilis, a sexually transmitted disease, may cause psychosis.

Syphilis is an example of a secondary disorder that causes psychosis. Syphilis, a sexually transmitted disease, affects the brain in its later stages. A patient can experience seizures as the disease destroys his or her central nervous system. Other neurological symptoms include a decrease in the ability to move and extreme pain in the legs.

Another example of a psychiatric disorder is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Once known as shell shock, it develops in patients who have experienced a traumatic event. Fighting in war and witnessing a murder are just two of many events that can cause PTSD. Patients experience flashbacks and dreams that make them replay the traumatic event. Even years later, unassuming triggers such as hearing a loud noise or accidentally bumping into someone can cause flashbacks.

A psychotic illness severely impacts a person's cognitive abilities.
A psychotic illness severely impacts a person's cognitive abilities.
A psychotic illness severely impacts a person's cognitive abilities.

Though many illnesses fall under the category of psychosis, each illness has one or a combination of three characteristics: delusional beliefs, hallucinations and a thought disorder. Interpreting these symptoms allows physicians and psychologists to diagnose the particular psychotic illness. Diagnosis can sometimes be difficult, as many illnesses tend to share or have similar symptoms. Patients or relatives of patients should be prepared for a sometimes lengthy diagnostic process.

Post traumatic stress disorder is a psychotic illness that affects many soldiers who have experienced combat situations.
Post traumatic stress disorder is a psychotic illness that affects many soldiers who have experienced combat situations.
Post traumatic stress disorder is a psychotic illness that affects many soldiers who have experienced combat situations.

Treating a psychotic illness depends on the illness and its severity. Some illnesses may only require counseling sessions while the patient goes about his or her normal life. For more severe cases, medication may be required, especially if a patient suffers from bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. If the condition is extreme, hospitalization in a psychiatric hospital may be required. These hospitals provide many services such as a personalized program, medication and counseling.

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Discussion Comments


I agree with the note in the article that it can be difficult to diagnose disorders such as these because of the overlap of symptoms.

For example, I had a family member that was diagnosed with bipolar and I was always intrigued by this diagnosis because bipolar (when she had been first diagnosed) meant you experienced two polar feelings (mania and depression).

The reason I was intrigued was that the family member, without a doubt showed the mania symptoms, but had never exhibited the depression symptoms.

If I remember right, they have since changed the definition of or symptoms of bipolar to include types that do not necessarily experience the depression symptoms as often or as severe.

Either way, whether the diagnosis was spot on or not, they were able to give her medications that I felt gave me my family member back though they sadly were a bit more limited because their medications made them understandably extremely drowsy.


@w00dchuck41 - I am by no means an expert; however there are several things that came to my mind when you relayed the story about your friend.

The first because I work with kids with special needs is that your story reminded me of someone with autism and a certain type of autism called Aspergers because people with these type of autism are generally very smart but lack social skills so they can come off as weird.

I am not sure about certain aspects such as how your friend used to think he was a werewolf, but I am certain about the intelligence and social skills issue!


Is psychosis treatable or is it a permanent thing?

I have a friend who has acts really weird sometimes. When he was younger, he thought that he was a werewolf – until we told him that he was crazy and his mom took him to the psych doctor.

He straightened up a lot after visiting a therapist, but I feel like he's just keeping it to himself now. I have serious doubts that he's really normal like he says he is. He fits the psychosis definition pretty closely otherwise. He's always suspicious.

My mom said that it was just me remembering how weird he was, but I know him pretty well. He's a smart guy and could probably figure out how to hide something really good if he wanted to.

He's been to the doctor and got a clean bill of mental health now. I'm just wondering if it's possible that he could have psychosis and then get cured – is it possible?


@Jacques6 - Make sure that you tell your doctor everything. A lot of people feel weird telling their doctors exactly how they feel because they are worried about the consequences. Just remember -- it makes it way harder for doctors to diagnose you if you are leaving out embarrassing details.

I suffered from depression for years before I realized what it was. My doctor had known and had told me, but I didn't want to believe that I could have some kind of mental problem. My family is very proud of being problem-free, but once I admitted my problem -- my mom admitted to being depressed too.

Just be honest with your doctor -- they have your best interests at heart.


My brother recently convinced me to go in for a bipolar test. He thought that I was moody and "weird" as he put it. My doctor told me that it was nothing and thought that I was just stressed over something.

I'm still worried it might be more, but my doctor just put me on anti-depressants. I trust my doctor's opinion -- but I feel like he didn't do a thorough enough examination.

Bipolar mental disorders run in my family -- so I have been trying to get him to double check. I do have times when I feel hopeless, but he thinks it's just depression. We'll see.

This article is right – a lot of the symptoms of psychotic mental illnesses cross over. A lot of mental illnesses cause depression, which can cause random other symptoms – no wonder doctors get confused!


I think the hardest form of psychotic mental illness is in kids. Luckily, it rarely affects children under ten years old. At least when they are ten, you can try to explain what is going on to them.

I've thought that my little nephew has had a psychotic mental illness for several years, but my sister denies it. He has fits of rage where he screams himself blue -- but it's always over something very simple.

It's easy to excuse violent and loud behavior when a child is really little, but he is now over ten years old and is acting worse. My sister started taking him to a therapist but it hasn't helped.

I've worried that once he gets big enough, he will do something to hurt someone. So far, my sister has managed to control him but it's getting worse.

Hopefully the therapist will be able to identify if he actually has a mental illness or if he's just out of control. At least they have started some kind of treatment.


My boyfriend’s mother suffers from schizophrenia. Her disease drove her husband away, and my boyfriend was left all alone with a psychotic mother.

She is highly intelligent, and she taught him many useful things while in her regular personality. The other two weren’t as bright. One was a fairy princess, and the other was a rough barfly.

He was ten when his father left, so he was capable of doing things for himself. If his mother happened to be a fairy princess around suppertime, he would have to cook for them. He became both self-sufficient and a good caretaker at a young age.

When he turned eighteen, he had her committed. She was very upset, but he knew that he could not give her the help she needed at home, because he was leaving for college, and she could not stay by herself.


My close friend suffers from bipolar disorder and she doesn't really like the classification of it as a psychotic illness because people assume she is crazy. This can be a huge problem because so many people believe so many stereotypes about those with psychotic illnesses, many of which just aren't true.

While my friend did have massive mood swings, she is able to live a completely normal life with medication and therapy. Her condition is indeed genetic as her mother suffers from the same condition.

I really think that people need to be better educated about psychotic illnesses so they don't alienate those who suffer from a medical condition beyond their control.


Those with a psychotic illness seem to come up a lot in popular crime dramas and are always portrayed as violent serial killers, and those who are excessively paranoid. Schizophrenia seems to be one of those mental illnesses that makes for great television as it really pushes actors to make two distinctly different characters.

I remember an episode I watched of a crime drama a few years ago. It stuck in my mind because it was so disturbing. The boy in it suffered from schizophrenia and he had an alter ego that would murder those who hurt him to protect him. The boy himself never remembered doing anything wrong. It is really amazing how much power the mind has.


Bipolar disease is physically and mentally exhausting. Before I got medication to control it, I would alternate between feeling on top of the world and the lowest of the low.

Both mania and depression take a lot out of you, so I suffered from extreme fatigue during my depressive spells. While manic, I used up all the energy I had stored in my body.

I got a lot accomplished during these episodes, but as soon as depression set in, I stopped doing whatever I was doing and fell into a deep abyss. I was so confused and tired all the time. The medicine helps me stay at a steady emotional level.


I have a friend who dropped acid and suffered from hallucinations and an altered way of thinking for years. He said that during his trip, he saw a Doberman with a nose so long that it reached to him from across the room. He also heard a cat saying, “I know,” and to this day, he still hates cats and Dobermans.

He also said that when he looked in the mirror while on acid, he saw his face melt off and fall to the floor. For years after that, he had a fear of mirrors and could not look into one until he got psychiatric treatment.


My best friend became extremely depressed in her thirties. Nothing seemed to have triggered the illness. Life for her was as it had always been, but suddenly, her outlook on everything became negative.

She started talking about the pointlessness of life. She would say things that scared me, like how she hated to think that she had maybe sixty more years of life to endure.

I told her that I thought she was clinically depressed and should get medication. When I pointed out that there was no reason for her sudden change in thought pattern, she took my advice. She visited a psychiatrist, who put her on antidepressants to manage the disorder.


Many years ago, most people didn't talk much about depression or mental illness. I think it was avoided because it is such a hard thing for most people to grasp or understand.

I am glad there seems to be more open communication about this than there was in the past. After my daughter in law had her first baby, she suffered some postpartum depression.

Even though this is not quite the same as psychotic depression, there are many things about it that are very similar. She was able to quickly get the right treatment, but it was kind of scary for everybody for awhile.

Having professionals who understand and care, and getting treatment as soon as possible for any kind of psychotic illness is so helpful. It can make a big difference between being able to function and live a normal life or not being able to get through the activities of daily living.


I remember when my aunts husband passed away unexpectedly, she really had a hard time, and began exhibiting some bipolar symptoms.

I didn't know at the time, that she had problems with this in the past, but it was not very severe, and most people didn't know about it.

When this traumatic death happened, it really seemed to change her thinking and her personality. Since then, I have read that often times if something traumatic happens, these symptoms really become much more common for them if they have struggled in the past.

It was so hard for the family to know if this was just part of her grieving process, or if there was something more serious involved. Most people are not very comfortable talking about psychotic illness, but that never helps the situation.

I think it is always best if you start out with your family doctor and then go from there. If they think there are some mental problems that need further attention, they should be able to refer you to the right people for proper care.


I have known some people who have struggled with different kinds of psychotic illness. This can be such a difficult thing to diagnosis, and can be very confusing for the person and their family as they go through this process.

I knew one boy who after many months of testing, was diagnosed with Lyme disease. There were so many factors involved, and you don't know if it was because he went for so many months without the correct treatment, but he began having some psychotic episodes.

This began several more months of testing, different medications, treatment, and trying to figure out what the cause was.

They still don't know for sure if this was because of the Lyme disease or not, but he has never been the same since then. As long as he stays on some medication, he is able to function and work a normal job, but still struggles with some mental conditions.


@Crispety - I read that a lot of psychological disorders are a result of a chemical imbalance in the brain. If that was the case with your father then maybe he always had the condition, you just didn’t know it.

Sometimes psychological disorders appear as a result of severe trauma especially in childhood. I remember watching the movie, “Sybil” with Sally Fields and it was really chilling. This poor women developed schizophrenia and was reported to have about 12 different personalities.

The movie goes into the chronic abuse that she suffered from her mother that was so severe that the doctors felt that developing these multiple personalities was her way of coping with this abuse. By escaping reality for a little while, she did not have to think about the pain that she endured daily so in that regard I certainly understand why she developed this psychotic disorder.

The psychiatrist was able to treat her schizophrenia through hypnosis which is how he discovered the extent of the abuse that she experienced. He had to introduce her to each of the personalities while remaining in a hypnotic state in order to give her peace and allow her to live a seemingly normal life.


My father towards the end of his life was diagnosed with psychoses as well as dementia. He really had a hard time trusting people and always thought that someone was trying to hurt him. He also appeared disheveled and lacked basic hygiene. I read about the condition and this type of behavior was pretty typical of people that develop psychotic disorders.

He was always a loner, but these symptoms really started to come out when he reached 80. He was never violent with anyone but he was difficult to manage because he refused to listen to the nurses. We had to have an intervention type of talk with him at one point because they were going to throw my father out of the assisted living facility.

Luckily, the tough love worked and he was able to stay. They also gave him medication that neutralized some of these symptoms. I wonder if this is something that happened to my father because of his advanced age, or was he always psychotic but never showed severe signs of the disorder. I always wonder about that.

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    • Use of illegal drugs may may cause psychosis.
      Use of illegal drugs may may cause psychosis.
    • Syphilis, a sexually transmitted disease, may cause psychosis.
      Syphilis, a sexually transmitted disease, may cause psychosis.
    • A psychotic illness severely impacts a person's cognitive abilities.
      A psychotic illness severely impacts a person's cognitive abilities.
    • Post traumatic stress disorder is a psychotic illness that affects many soldiers who have experienced combat situations.
      Post traumatic stress disorder is a psychotic illness that affects many soldiers who have experienced combat situations.