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What Are Psychotic Disorders?

They're a group of mental health conditions that change your sense of reality. They make it hard to know what's real and what isn't. When you have these disorders, you might see and hear things that don't exist or believe things that aren't true.  

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Who's at Risk?

Scientists don't know exactly what causes psychotic disorders, but they've got some theories.  Viruses, problems with how certain brain circuits work, extreme stress or trauma, and some forms of drug abuse may play a role in some people. You also may be more likely to get a psychotic disorder if you have a family member who has one.

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If you have this condition, you might have hallucinations, which means you hear voices or see things that aren't real. You could also have delusions -- strong beliefs in things that aren't true. John Nash, the Nobel prize-winning mathematician whose story was told in the movie A Beautiful Mind, had schizophrenia.

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Schizoaffective Disorder

This condition mixes symptoms of schizophrenia with a mood disorder -- mania or depression. If you have the depressive type, you often feel sad and worthless. If you have the bipolar type, you have periods of mania -- racing thoughts and extreme happiness. Brian Wilson, founding member of the Beach Boys, has schizoaffective disorder.

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Schizophreniform Disorder

It has the same symptoms as schizophrenia, but they're temporary. Hallucinations and delusions last between 1 and 6 months, although sometimes your symptoms can return later. This disorder is much less common than schizophrenia. It most often affects teens and young adults. Schizophreniform disorder can turn into full-blown schizophrenia even after it's treated.

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Brief Psychotic Disorder

When someone has it, they suddenly get symptoms like hallucinations and delusions. One possible trigger is extreme stress after things like an accident or the death of a loved one. If you're a woman, it can happen after you give birth. Sometimes there's no obvious cause. Usually, your symptoms go away on their own within a month. In some people, brief psychotic disorder turns into schizophrenia or schizoaffective disorder.

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Delusional Disorder

In this condition, you have a false sense of reality about one or more of your beliefs. For instance, you might think a friend is plotting to kill you, your partner is cheating, or a celebrity is in love with you. These false beliefs start to affect your everyday life. For example, if you think someone is going to harm you, you might be afraid to leave the house.

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Shared Psychotic Disorder

It's a rare condition where two people in a relationship have the same untrue belief. For example, a mother and son might both think they're about to be abducted by aliens. The condition is also called folie à deux, which means "madness between two."

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Substance-Induced Psychotic Disorder

When you start or stop certain drugs, you may get substance-induced psychotic disorder. The symptoms include hallucinations and delusions. Drugs that can bring it on include:

  • Alcohol
  • Amphetamines
  • Cocaine
  • LSD
  • Marijuana
  • PCP
  • Opioids
  • Sedatives

The symptoms should go away once you stop the drug or go through withdrawal. The condition can return if you take the drug again.

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Disorder Due to a Medical Condition

Sometimes, symptoms that seem like a mental health disorder are actually due to a medical condition. Your psychotic disorder may start after a head injury or during one of these illnesses:

  • Alzheimer's disease and other types of dementia
  • Brain tumor
  • HIV or AIDS
  • Low blood sugar (hypoglycemia)
  • Lupus
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Stroke
  • Syphilis
  • Parkinson's disease
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Warning Signs

The first symptoms can be hard to spot. You might not realize you have a problem right away. So see a doctor if you notice any of these changes:

  • You can't concentrate or think clearly.
  • You're suspicious of people around you.
  • You see or hear things no one else can.
  • You pull away from loved ones and spend more time alone.
  • You have strange new beliefs, and no one can convince you they're untrue.
  • You stop bathing or caring for yourself.
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How Are They Treated?

You'll have the best chance of recovery if you get treated during your first outbreak of symptoms. Your doctor may suggest medicine and talk therapy. A therapist helps you understand your thoughts and behaviors, and teaches you healthier ways to manage your problems. Antipsychotic drugs can help ease hallucinations and delusions. Your doctor may prescribe antidepressants if you also have symptoms of depression, like despair and sadness.

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Life With a Psychotic Disorder

Lean on friends, family members, your doctor, and a support group in your community to help you get through treatment. Find out all you can about your condition and what to expect. Take the time you need to recover. Don't try to push yourself too hard. If you have a problem with drugs or alcohol, get help from your doctor or a substance abuse program.

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Sources | Medically Reviewed on 11/17/2021 Reviewed by Jennifer Casarella, MD on November 17, 2021


Cardiff and Vale Action for Mental Health: "Practical Guidelines for Caring for the Person With Paraphrenia (Late Onset Psychosis)."

Centre for Addiction and Mental Health: "The Different Types of Psychosis," "What is Psychosis?"

Harvard Medical School: "Delusional Disorder."

Medscape: "Brief Psychotic Disorder," "Shared Psychotic Disorder."

MentalHealth.gov: "Psychotic Disorders."

National Alliance on Mental Illness: "Early Psychosis and Psychosis," "Mental Health Medications," "Psychotherapy," "Schizophrenia," "Support."

National Drug & Alcohol Research Centre: "Psychosis + Substance Use."

NHS: "Psychosis -- Causes."

Ohio State University: "A Beautiful Mind: Analyzing How Schizophrenia is Portrayed in Movies versus Reality."

Personality and Individual Differences: "A psychobiographical analysis of Brian Douglas Wilson: Creativity, drugs, and models of schizophrenic and affective disorders."

Sadock, Benjamin J. Kaplan & Sadock's Concise Textbook of Clinical Psychiatry, 2008.

Slate: "Two Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest."

Brian Wilson website.

Reviewed by Jennifer Casarella, MD on November 17, 2021

This tool does not provide medical advice. See additional information.

THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for general informational purposes only and does not address individual circumstances. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment and should not be relied on to make decisions about your health. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the WebMD Site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.