What Should I Do if My Daughter has Schizoaffective Disorder?

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Reader’s Question

What treatments are there for schizoaffective disorder? My daughter took several tests and she was diagnosed with this. Right now it’s affecting her schooling; she’s constantly depressed and cries a lot. She is 19. I would love to help but don’t know where to turn.

Psychologist’s Reply

Schizoaffective disorder involves the combination of schizophrenia and an affective (mood) disorder, such as depression or bipolar disorder. Unfortunately, as with all of the emotional and mental disorders, there are no laboratory tests used to diagnose or confirm the presence of a disorder. I suspect that the type of test you’re referring to might be a self-report test that perhaps your daughter found online. Those types of assessments are meant to screen for the possibility of a disorder, but there are many reasons why such tests are unreliable and meant as only crude indicators of whether to seek professional assessment.

Mental health professionals typically rely on self-reported symptoms to form a diagnosis. However, in asking questions they can clarify and explore the patient’s experiences, and gauge the severity of the symptoms being reported; online or printed tests cannot. So, some people may respond to printed questions in ways that add to a score indicating a possible mental health problem simply because of the ways they’re interpreting what is being asked, or what the response choices mean.

Then there is the issue of overlap among psychiatric symptoms. Several different diagnoses may all include some aspects of the experiences your daughter is having. For example, whereas schizophrenia includes hallucinations (false sensory experiences) and delusions (false beliefs), severe depression sometimes also includes these same extreme symptoms. Mood problems, such as depression and anxiety, are common to multiple psychiatric diagnoses.

Because of the messiness of psychiatric diagnoses, it’s important that your daughter be evaluated by a qualified mental health professional. Precise diagnosis is often difficult (and sometimes impossible), but it is important to know whether your daughter is experiencing some symptoms indicating schizophrenia. The medications used to treat depressed mood are of a different type than those used to treat psychotic symptoms, such as hallucinations and delusions, that are not caused by the depression. For illnesses such as schizophrenia and schizoaffective disorder, medications are the first necessary step, which will require prescriptions from a medical doctor. Because psychiatry is the medical specialty that’s most relevant, I encourage you to help your daughter make and keep an appointment with a psychiatrist. If she has been diagnosed by a mental health professional, that person should have recommended or offered treatment options. If not, it’s time to try again.

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