What Is Schizoaffective Disorder?

Medically reviewed by April Justice
Updated February 19, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Schizoaffective disorder might be one of the most commonly overlooked mental illnesses we currently understand. Many people might assume that schizoaffective disorder is the same thing as schizophrenia—however, this is not generally the case. While schizoaffective disorder can show some similarities with schizophrenia, it is typically regarded as a completely different diagnosis that may come with its own challenges, ideal treatment options and prognosis. 

In this article, we’ll discuss schizoaffective disorder, including each of its subtypes, its symptoms and the best ways to treat it.

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Do you think you may have schizoaffective disorder?

What is schizoaffective disorder bipolar type?

Schizoaffective disorder (SD) can be considered a mental illness that is generally characterized by a combination of schizophrenic and mood disorder symptoms.

The combination of the two types of symptoms means that this disorder can often be misdiagnosed as schizophrenia, depression or bipolar disorder. However, ongoing care and careful observation of symptoms can lead to the correct diagnosis.

Schizoaffective disorder bipolar type can be regarded as a subtype of SD that can include schizophrenia symptoms in addition to episodes of mania—and, in some cases, major depression. 

Because schizoaffective disorder can involve so many symptoms, many of which can be hard to detect by others, it can be difficult to diagnose. This can be because not all symptoms may be present at the same time—so it can be tricky for patients to communicate the full extent of their experiences. 

Differences between schizoaffective disorder and other disorders

There has been some debate about the diagnosis of schizoaffective disorder bipolar type in the psychiatric community. However, many experts believe that this diagnosis can be a valid one that’s distinct from other mental health disorders. 

Though bipolar disorder can lead to symptoms of psychosis that may mimic schizophrenia, the main difference between the two might stem from the frequency and intensity of these symptoms. 

A person living with schizophrenia may experience delusions, paranoia and hallucinations—possibly to the point of someone losing touch with reality. Someone living with bipolar disorder, on the other hand, may experience these symptoms only during a manic episode. They may be more significantly impacted by symptoms unique to bipolar disorder, such as mood swings between extreme highs and lows that can make it difficult to sustain a job, relationships and a sense of stability. 

A person living with schizoaffective disorder may experience a combination of these predominant symptoms, though they may fluctuate over time.

We do want to note: It can be an oversimplification to classify this disorder as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder alone; doing so may ignore the very real fact that its symptoms can be uniquely challenging to those who experience them. 

Other schizoaffective disorder types

There are generally two different types of schizoaffective disorder that are currently clinically recognized. Beyond the type mentioned here, the other type is considered to be schizoaffective disorder depressive type. 

This type can be very similar to schizoaffective disorder, but rather than experiencing extreme lows and highs, people living with this diagnosis may manage periods of intense depression in addition to schizophrenia symptoms. Both disorders can be frequently treated in many of the same ways.

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Diagnosis of schizoaffective disorder bipolar type

Diagnosis of schizoaffective disorder bipolar type can be difficult without ongoing treatment. The doctor generally must be able to see that a mood disorder coexists with symptoms of schizophrenia for a correct and efficient diagnosis. 

Some key elements generally must be present for a diagnosis of schizoaffective disorder bipolar type. Clinically diagnosis states that there must, for instance, be a period in which symptoms of mania persist in conjunction with symptoms of schizophrenia. This can establish that a diagnosis of schizophrenia may not be appropriate for a specific patient’s needs. There must also generally be at least two weeks where symptoms of delusions and hallucinations may occur in the absence of mania. 

Another possible criterion for the diagnosis of schizoaffective disorder bipolar type is that there are symptoms of a mood disorder for the majority of the duration of the illness or episode. This does not necessarily mean that the patient has mania consistently throughout the illness, however. There are cycles of mood disorders that can show presence even when a major manic episode may not be occurring.

Finally, it generally must be determined that these symptoms are not due to another explainable cause, like substance use, prescription medication, or the existence of other mental health disorders. 

Prevalence of schizoaffective disorder

Based on current estimates, schizoaffective disorder might only affect about one out of every 200 people of the American population. However, some psychiatrists and researchers believe that it may be more prevalent than this.

Causes of schizoaffective disorder

Little is generally known about what exactly can cause schizoaffective disorder, but it seems that, like many other mental illnesses, it can result from a combination of genetic, biological, and environmental factors. 

Many believe that genes can play a role in the development of schizoaffective disorders of both types. 

People who have a history of schizoaffective disorder in their families may be at higher risk of developing the mental health condition themselves. However, exactly what genes are responsible and how that information could be used in treatment or prevention is still generally unknown to most research entities.

It has become clear to researchers that brain function may be different in people with schizoaffective disorder than in a healthy brain. However, more studies are generally needed before practitioners can point to a clear answer or solution.

Environmental factors can also play a part. For example: People who have a predisposition or risk factors for schizoaffective disorder, such as family history, may start experiencing symptoms after stressful life events. Sometimes, a stressful life event is what brings the onset of the illness for some. 

However, while that stressful event might seem the immediate cause, it may not be the full picture; it can instead be likely that those who have a predisposition to developing the disorder experience a “trigger” that can jumpstart symptoms. 

This observation may also help explain why some patients living with SD can experience an uptick in their symptoms after using some drugs or illicit substances, too.

Symptoms commonly associated with schizoaffective disorder

While everyone’s experience can be intensely individual, there are certain symptoms to watch for if there is concern about schizoaffective disorder in someone’s life. 

Hallucinations and delusions can be the primary symptoms of schizoaffective disorder. Hallucinations, by definition, can indicate that a person may be seeing or hearing things that are not there at the time of symptomatic onset. Conversely, delusions are generally considered to be fixed beliefs that can be proven to be false but can continue to be held by the patient.

Another major symptom of schizoaffective disorder can be disorganized thinking. People living with schizoaffective disorder may find it very difficult to concentrate or stay on topic. They may quickly switch from one topic to another during conversations, or they may provide answers that are completely unrelated to the topic at hand.

Finally, for those living with schizoaffective disorder bipolar type, periods of mania and depression can be more likely to occur than not. During mania, symptoms like racing thoughts, feelings of euphoria and risky behavior may take precedence. During lows, intense feelings of sadness, disinterest, fatigue and other symptoms related to depression can become significant.

Treatment of schizoaffective disorder

There are many different treatment options that can be available to support those living with schizoaffective disorder, but in most cases, a combination of medications and psychotherapy is generally recommended.

Medications

There are a wide variety of medications that may be helpful in the treatment of schizoaffective disorder. More than one medication might be prescribed to treat all of the symptoms, possibly supporting patients in having a higher quality of life. A physician can legally assess and prescribe the correct medication on a per-patient basis to successfully address mental and physical symptoms. 

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Do you think you may have schizoaffective disorder?

Psychotherapy

Medication alone might not be enough to fully address the range of symptoms that can be associated with treating schizoaffective disorder. Psychotherapy can be a key part of treatment as well. 

Your therapist may utilize many different types of psychotherapy to help you address your symptoms and pursue your goals—with the most common possibly being cognitive-behavioral therapy.

How can online therapy help those living with schizoaffective disorder?

Whether you’re currently diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder or believe you may fit the diagnostic criteria for it, speaking with a professional about your thoughts can be beneficial. Not only can you find answers to your questions and resources that can help, but you can also receive support and advice that may help you learn to navigate your symptoms in the long run.

It can be especially convenient to attend sessions through online therapy; as all you might need to connect with someone who understands your needs is an internet connection. There’s generally no need to be limited by the options available to you locally when you use online therapy for support.

Is online therapy effective?

Research has found statistics that suggest that online therapy isn’t necessarily a less valuable treatment option than traditional counseling. In fact, one recent literature review of several studies analyzing the efficacy of online cognitive behavioral therapy found research that suggests that it could effectively treat a variety of mental health disorders, including PTSD, anxiety disorders, depression, panic disorder, and more. This can be a valuable finding for those living with schizoaffective disorder, as these conditions can co-occur simultaneously.  

Takeaway

Schizoaffective disorder is generally considered to be a mental health disorder that can involve symptoms of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Though it may overlap with other diagnoses, this disorder can be unique and distinct in terms of the ways it can affect one’s daily life. That’s why pursuing professional treatment can be so important, especially if you’re unsure about how to categorize your experiences. Online therapy can be a valuable tool for many who wish to address their symptoms and overall quality of life. BetterHelp can connect you with an online therapist in your area of need.

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