An early intervention approach to psychosis is showing promise as a way to treat schizophrenia and lessen the severity of early psychotic episodes. The approach was pioneered in Portland, Maine, and has gained widespread support in through a program called the Early Assessment and Support Alliance (EASA). EASA and similar programs nationwide target teenagers and young adults who exhibit the early signs of schizophrenia. Many of the young people who experience the two-year treatment course have not yet been diagnosed with schizophrenia, and some never receive a formal diagnosis. The primary goal of this approach is to provide those experiencing early warning signs with significant help and resources before they experience their first psychotic episode. This may help some patients avoid a psychotic break entirely, and help many others avoid the often permanently devastating impact of that first break.
First Psychotic Episode Can Be Severely Damaging
Schizophrenia is a debilitating illness, and can be very difficult to treat. Many patients face such painful and challenging consequences after their first psychotic episode that they are never able to regain their stability and lead productive lives. The intense break with reality that accompanies a psychotic episode can result in imprisonment or commitment to a mental hospital. In prison, patients face a tremendous struggle when it comes to receiving appropriate treatment for the illness. Unfortunately, patients in mental wards can also face a struggle to receive treatment that will allow them to reenter society, since the emphasis is often on preventing them from harming themselves or others rather than the intensive and multifaceted treatment necessary for them to regain their independent footing. As damaging as the first psychotic episode can be, schizophrenia only becomes more difficult to treat with each following episode.
Socialization, Therapy and Occasional Medication
These two-year intervention treatment programs emphasize socialization and family relationships. Relationships often suffer when young people begin to experience the early signs of schizophrenia, which can include hearing voices and seeing shadows. Patients can feel isolated and withdraw from their social circles and family circles, and this treatment works to combat that trend so that patients maintain close relationships and feel strongly supported when facing symptoms of illness. This treatment approach also provides patients with school and employment assistance to help them continue to function productively despite their symptoms. In some cases, patients are prescribed antipsychotic medication to help bring their symptoms under control.
Concerns About Early Medication
The use of antipsychotic medication in early intervention treatment has raised some concerns in the medical community. Critics worry about the risks of giving antipsychotic drugs to patients who may never ultimately develop schizophrenia. Previous studies have found that only a minority of those who see shadows or hear voices will ultimately develop schizophrenia, while the majority will never suffer a psychotic break or experience further symptoms. Robert K. Heinssen, director of services and intervention research at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), says that exposure to antipsychotics in young people can lead to weight gain, high blood pressure and additional negative side effects. He and other critics worry that these risks, combined with the relatively small number of those with early symptoms who develop schizophrenia, will result in many young people being put needlessly in harm’s way. However, practitioners of the approach say that a relatively small number of patients are given antipsychotic medication, and that the emphasis is on socialization, family therapy and job support.
Success Could Improve Lives, Save Money
At least one study, published in the Schizophrenia Bulletin, suggests that this early intervention approach is effective. In Portland, where this approach began, a study has reported a 34 percent drop in hospitalizations from first episodes of psychosis. Successful treatment for schizophrenia could not only significantly improve the lives of those suffering from this devastating illness, but could also save society a significant amount of money. Schizophrenia is one of the most expensive illnesses in the world to treat, costing around $63 billion per year.