Historical and Contemporary Understandings of Schizophrenia

Erin L. George, MFT
Erin L. George, MFT
Medical editor

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Schizophrenia is a chronic mental health disorder characterized by distortions in thinking, perception, emotions, language, sense of self, and behavior. Common symptoms include hallucinations, delusions, and disorganized thinking. This complex condition affects an individual's ability to discern reality, leading to profound challenges in daily life.


The historical context of schizophrenia is crucial for understanding the current stigma and misconceptions surrounding the disorder. In ancient times, mental illnesses like schizophrenia were not well understood. Conditions resembling schizophrenia were often attributed to supernatural causes like evil spirits or demonic possession. Early treatments, such as trepanation, reflected these misconceptions. Understanding this history helps us appreciate the progress in our current approach to schizophrenia, from a spiritual and moral issue to a recognized medical condition.

Ancient Understanding of Schizophrenia

Mental illness was not well understood in ancient times. Conditions like schizophrenia were not differentiated from other forms of mental illness or mental retardation, much of which was thought of as being supernatural in origin, caused by evil spirits, demon possession, punishment for sin, or similar spiritualist phenomena. Apart from exorcism, an early remedy for such conditions was found in trepanation, a surgical procedure in which holes were drilled in the skull, perhaps as a means of letting those evil spirits out, perhaps for other, unknown reasons. Though the practice of trepanation was ultimately discontinued in developed cultures, the idea that many mental illnesses and schizophrenia was essentially a spiritual and moral problem appears to have remained dominant for hundreds, if not thousands of years.

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As humanity entered the Renaissance and Enlightenment periods, there was a gradual shift towards naturalistic explanations for mental disorders. This era marked the beginning of attempts to understand mental illnesses, including schizophrenia-like symptoms, through a scientific lens rather than as manifestations of spiritual or demonic influences. This transition laid the foundation for modern psychiatry and the eventual scientific study of mental health disorders.

Schizophrenia Is Defined

The first, formal description of schizophrenia as a mental illness was made in 1887 by Dr. Emile Kraepelin. He used the term "dementia praecox" to describe the symptoms now known as schizophrenia. Dementia praecox means "early dementia". By calling his syndrome 'early dementia', he meant to differentiate it from dementias that occur later in life such as Alzheimer's disease (senility). Correctly, Kraepelin believed that dementia praecox was primarily a disease of the brain. However, he was mistaken in believing that this disorder was a form of dementia. It is now known that schizophrenia and dementia (mental deterioration) are distinct disorders.

The term "schizophrenia" was first used in 1911 by a Swiss psychiatrist, Eugen Bleuler. It comes from the Greek roots schizo (split) and phrene (mind). Bleuler used this name to emphasize the mental confusion and fragmented thinking characteristic of people with the illness. His term was not meant to convey the idea of an actual split personality or multiple personality. This confusion has, however, become a common and rather entrenched myth regarding schizophrenia that continues to this day.

Although Bleuler was the first to describe symptoms as "positive" or "negative", both Kraepelin and Bleuler recognized that schizophrenia symptoms tended to cluster into distinct categories. They created a typology of schizophrenic subtypes that continues to be used today. Modern schizophrenic categories recognized by the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders; the repository of mental health diagnoses, currently in its fourth, text-revised edition) include paranoid, disorganized, catatonic, residual, and undifferentiated subtypes, each based on a particular distinct symptom cluster.

a man learning about the history of schizophrenia

Classification of Schizophrenia 

The next major contribution to the progress of understanding schizophrenia came when Kurt Schneider listed his 'first rank' features of the disease in 1959. This important work effectively differentiated schizophrenia from other psychoses and served as the inspiration for the two diagnostic manuals widely used to define modern schizophrenia, the International Classification of Diseases (ICD, currently in its 10th edition) and the DSM. The definition and diagnostic criteria for schizophrenia codified in these manuals continue to evolve today, based primarily on new scientific research and findings that further illuminate the illness.

As the classification of schizophrenia became more refined, so too did the theories of how it was caused. Gregory Bateson and colleagues offered the "double bind" theory in the middle 1950's. This theory proposed that schizophrenia was caused by particular forms of bad parenting, specifically where parents explicitly said one thing and then contradicted that thing with implicit unconscious messages of opposite content. For example, parents might praise their child, but treat him poorly. This theory has been largely discredited and discarded for lack of convincing scientific evidence. However, the idea that stressful life events (such as having crazy parents) can play a role in causing schizophrenia continues to be important in modern psychiatric research and "diathesis-stress" models of schizophrenia.

A diathesis is a vulnerability. Diathesis-stress models of schizophrenia basically propose that people have predispositions and vulnerabilities for schizophrenia (diatheses). Some people have more of these susceptibilities than others, for varying reasons having to do with genetics, biology and experience. However, propensity towards schizophrenia alone is not enough to trigger the disorder. Instead, people's vulnerabilities must interact with life stresses to trigger the onset of psychotic symptoms and the illness. The greater a person's inherent propensity for developing schizophrenia, the less stress is necessary to trigger a psychotic episode and get the disorder started. Conversely, where there is a smaller susceptibility for developing schizophrenia, a greater stress is required to produce the disorder. Until this critical amount of stress is reached (however much or little of it is necessary) people cannot be said to have schizophrenia, and their vulnerabilities might be said to be "latent" (hidden). Various sources of stress may combine to produce the releasing effect, including stressors which are psychological, social, and biological (including trauma, depression, viruses, birth complications, and similar illnesses). The use of certain 'recreational' drugs such as marijuana or psychedelics like LSD may also be capable of releasing a hidden diathesis towards developing schizophrenia.

Contemporary Advances and Controversies

Recent advancements and debates in schizophrenia research are shaping our understanding and approach to this complex disorder.

Modern science has made significant strides in genetic research and neuroimaging studies related to schizophrenia. Genetic research is unraveling the intricate ways in which genes may contribute to the risk of developing schizophrenia, providing a clearer picture of its hereditary aspects. Concurrently, advancements in neuroimaging techniques like MRI and PET scans are offering unprecedented insights into how schizophrenia affects brain structure and activity. These contributions are crucial in enhancing our understanding of the biological foundations of schizophrenia and are instrumental in paving the way for more personalized and effective treatments.

The role of patient advocacy and the incorporation of lived experiences in the treatment and policy-making processes are gaining increasing recognition. Acknowledging the value of firsthand experiences, healthcare professionals and policymakers are engaging more actively with individuals who have schizophrenia. This approach is fostering a more holistic understanding of the condition, leading to treatment models and policies that are more responsive to the actual needs of those affected by schizophrenia.

One area of current debate and exploration in the field of schizophrenia treatment involves the potential therapeutic use of psychedelics. Research into substances like psilocybin is being pursued to evaluate their efficacy and safety in treating various mental health conditions, including schizophrenia. This avenue of research, although still in its nascent stages, is stirring discussions around the ethical, legal, and health implications of using psychedelics in psychiatric treatment. The exploration of these emerging treatments is part of a broader, ongoing discourse on innovative and unconventional approaches in mental health care.

These contemporary advances and controversies represent the dynamic and evolving nature of schizophrenia research, highlighting both the progress made and the complexities that continue to challenge our understanding and treatment of the disorder.

Frequently Asked Questions

Who coined the term schizophrenia?

The term "schizophrenia" was coined by Swiss psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler in the early 20th century. Bleuler believed that the symptoms of the condition, which include delusions, hallucinations, and disordered thinking, were caused by a split in the mind of the affected individual. Prior to Bleuler's work, this condition was often referred to as "dementia praecox," which means "early dementia," and was thought to be a form of irreversible mental decline. Published in 1911, Bleuler’s book on the history of schizophrenia research the subject, “Dementia Praecox or the Group of Schizophrenias,” helped to establish the modern understanding of schizophrenia as a disorder rather than a form of dementia. Today, schizophrenia is recognized as a chronic and severe mental illness that affects millions of people worldwide.

Who discovered schizophrenia?

The discovery of schizophrenia is attributed to the German psychiatrist Emil Kraepelin, who first described the condition in the late 1800s. He observed patients with symptoms such as delusions, hallucinations, and disorganized thinking, which he believed were caused by an underlying brain disease. Kraepelin also distinguished schizophrenia from other forms of mental illness or ailments, such as dementia and bipolar disorder. His work laid the foundation for the modern concept and diagnosis of schizophrenia, which remains a challenging condition for psychiatry today. While the term "schizophrenia" was coined later by another psychiatrist, Kraepelin's research and observations of schizophrenia patients were instrumental in advancing our understanding and treatment of this disorder.

When was the first case of schizophrenia?

It's difficult to pinpoint when the first case of schizophrenia occurred because the illness was not recognized as a distinct disorder until the late 19th century. However, there is evidence that the symptoms of some people with schizophrenia have existed throughout history. In ancient times, people believed that those with schizophrenia were possessed by demons or cursed. In the Middle Ages, they were often accused of witchcraft. It wasn't until the 1800s that the term "dementia praecox" was used to describe a collection of symptoms that we now associate with schizophrenia. Today, we have a better understanding of clinical symptoms of the condition and can provide treatment and support to those who are affected.

Concerned you or someone you love may be suffering from schizophrenia? Identify areas to work on to improve your mental health with a free mental health quiz.

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