Psychosis can happen to anyone. Like any other illness, it can be treated.

Psychosis is a word used to describe a set of symptoms: hallucinations, delusions, and paranoia, that happen when the brain is not working correctly.

The word psychosis is used to describe medical conditions that affect the brain, so that there is a loss of contact with reality. When someone becomes ill in this way, it is called a psychotic episode.

Psychosis: Basic Facts

See our What is Psychosis? fact sheet.

Some facts:

  • Psychosis often strikes young people in their prime
  • Psychosis distorts the senses, making it very difficult for the ill person to tell what is real from what is not real
  • Usual age of occurrence of first episode psychosis is 16-25
  • Men and women are affected with equal frequency
  • Age of onset is usually younger for men than for women
  • Medical assessment and treatment are necessary
  • Early assessment, treatment, and education greatly improve outcomes for the individual and their family.

Psychosis and Schizophrenia

See this discussion of psychosis in the context of schizophrenia on the BC Psychosis website.

Psychosis and Mood

Download our resource booklet on Mood and Psychosis: Information for people with a mood disorder.

Additional information is available at the Mood Disorders Society of Canada.

Postpartum Psychosis

You can view information on postpartum psychosis at the very helpful Reproductive Mental Health Program Website, maintained by BC Mental Health and Substance Use Services.

What Causes Psychosis?

Just like a fever or a runny nose, psychosis symptoms can be triggered by many different things. Some of these things are:

  • Mental illnesses (such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or depression)
  • Misuse of substances (such as cocaine, methamphetamines, or cannabis)
  • Extreme lack of sleep
  • Extremely high stress
  • Other medical conditions (like brain tumours, hypoglycaemia, Alzheimer’s disease, lupus, Parkinson’s disease, or infections)

Who Experiences Psychosis?

Having psychotic symptoms very occasionally (such as when having a high fever) is fairly common and not a cause for concern. However, if symptoms are frequent or last for a long time, this might be a psychotic disorder requiring treatment.

Psychosis symptoms due to mental illness are slightly more common among people who have family history (genetic vulnerability) of mental illness or addiction. Most people experiencing psychosis symptoms for the first time, which are caused by a mental illness, are between the ages of 16 and 30. They are just as likely to be men or women.

Psychosis Early Warning Signs

Family or friends are likely to notice some changes but it may be hard at first to pin down the cause. Many behaviours are within the range of normal responses to situations. For example, a person might be moody or easily irritated. One may notice odd behaviours or see a person’s school or work performance go way down. A person might become more withdrawn and less active, spending long periods alone or shut away by themselves. Their speech might be jumbled or they might have difficulty concentrating. They might seem cut off from their feelings or show an unusual amount of emotion and excitement.

Yet family members sense—even when symptoms are mild—that behaviour is “unusual”, that the person is “not the same.” However, because these signs are not clear cut, family and friends may assume that the person is just going through a phase or using street drugs.

This list of possible warning signs was developed by people whose relatives have schizophrenia or other serious mental illness.

List of Early Warning Signs

The number and severity of these symptoms differ from person to person—although almost everyone mentions noticeable social withdrawal:

  • Deterioration of personal hygiene
  • Depression
  • Bizarre behaviour
  • Irrational statements
  • Sleeping excessively or inability to sleep
  • Social withdrawal, isolation, and reclusiveness
  • Shift in basic personality
  • Unexpected hostility
  • Deterioration of social relationships
  • Hyperactivity or inactivity—or alternating between the two
  • Inability to concentrate or to cope with minor problems
  • Extreme preoccupation with religion or with the occult
  • Excessive writing without meaning
  • Indifference
  • Dropping out of activities—or out of life in general
  • Decline in academic or athletic interests
  • Forgetting things
  • Losing possessions
  • Extreme reactions to criticism
  • Inability to express joy
  • Inability to cry, or excessive crying
  • Inappropriate laughter
  • Unusual sensitivity to stimuli (noise, light, colours, textures)
  • Attempts to escape through frequent moves or hitchhiking trips
  • Drug or alcohol abuse
  • Fainting
  • Strange posturing
  • Refusal to touch persons or objects; wearing gloves, etc.
  • Shaving head or body hair
  • Cutting oneself; threats of self-mutilation
  • Staring without blinking—or blinking incessantly
  • Flat, reptile-like gaze
  • Rigid stubbornness
  • Peculiar use of words or odd language structures
  • Sensitivity and irritability when touched by others.


Anosognosia, as explained by the Treatment Advocacy Center in the US, “also called ‘lack of insight,’ is a symptom of severe mental illness experienced by some that impairs a person’s ability to understand and perceive his or her illness.”

Their 2016 background paper on anosognosia states that “It is not the same as denial of illness. Anosognosia is caused by physical damage to the brain, and is thus anatomical in origin; denial is psychological in origin.

Approximately 50% of individuals with schizophrenia and 40% of individuals with bipolar disorder are estimated to have co-occurring anosognosia. It is reported to be the most common reason why individuals with schizophrenia refuse to take medication; since they do not believe that there is anything wrong with them, why should they? Awareness of illness sometimes improves with treatment with antipsychotic medication, especially clozapine.”

Early Psychosis Intervention

A first episode of psychosis can be a confusing and traumatic experience for a young person. It also affects their family and peers. Since the onset of psychosis associated with schizophrenia most often occurs in the late teens or early twenties, it can adversely affect the person’s developing a sense of self-identity as well as their relationships, education, and career goals.

Early diagnosis and treatment can lead to significantly improved recovery and outcome.

Frequent or long lasting psychosis symptoms mean something serious is going wrong with the person’s brain. As well, problems in thinking and perceiving the world can have a big effect on a person’s life, relationships, school and career.

The longer problems go on, the more serious the effects will be and the more it will affect that person’s future. Preliminary evidence shows delayed treatment may cause the illness to become more biologically entrenched and less responsive to treatment. The longer the illness goes untreated, the longer it will take for remission of symptoms, there exists a lesser degree of remission, and a greater chance of early relapse.

There can be critical damage to a young person’s life when psychosis is ignored. It is important to recognize early warning signs and get proper medical help as soon as possible.

Effective treatment can make a big difference.

The Early Psychosis Intervention Program provides resources and early psychosis intervention services in every Health Authority across BC. To find a program near you, please use their interactive map here.

Next Steps: Getting Help

If the person is under the age of 30, there are early psychosis clinics that you can contact, often without a referral. To find an early psychosis clinic near you, visit

Encourage a person to go to an early psychosis service to get checked out. If that is not possible, they could also go to their physician. Offer to make the appointment or go along as a support and to fill in information they might not think to include.

See our How Do I Get Help for my Loved One? page, for more information and contacts for getting your loved one assessed and provided with medical help.

You may also find the following resources helpful:

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