Psychotic episodes


"My mind was running away with itself"

Sarah lives in the north of England. She had a significant psychotic episode in her early 20s, during which she was abducted and assaulted. She has since made a full recovery, worked in fundraising and events management, and studied for a PhD.

“I had a phase of depression while I was at university, but when I finished my degree that lifted. I got a very competitive publishing job, moved to London and had a cool social life.

“I was everyone’s best friend, had huge amounts of energy and was staying up later and later. Nobody really noticed anything, especially as my work wasn’t being affected, but mania was creeping up on me.

“After a row with my boyfriend at three in the morning I decided to head for my parents’ house in Yorkshire. Outside my flat I got into what I assumed was a cab. It wasn’t.

“My memory of what happened over the next three days is very jumbled. My mind was running away with itself and I was developing full-blown psychosis. I became convinced that the man I was with was Stevie Wonder’s son and that he and I were secret agents on some sort of secret mission.  

“I had developed something of an obsession with royalty as my mania emerged, and kept thinking it was unfair that they had so much money and influence. I remember feeling very powerful and that my secret mission was to redistribute their wealth.

“This was my first experience of losing touch with reality. It was made all the more extraordinary because the man I was with seemed to be my closest ally at one moment, then the next he threatened me with a knife and raped me. My psychotic mind couldn’t make sense of what was going on.

“I was found three days later and spent the next month in hospital, eventually being diagnosed with manic depression. My hospitalisation was, I believed at the time, part of a role-play to trick the authorities and hospital staff. The mission I thought I was on was so top secret that I wasn’t allowed to know what it was.

“For a while I thought the side effects of my medication were a deliberate attempt to disable me, because people were afraid that I was a threat and might see through my mission. It was as if I was doing something important that others didn’t want me to do, and I needed to be controlled.

“Reality started to come back slowly. The police were interviewing me to find out what had happened. I thought I was doing some part-time espionage before getting back to my regular life, but when I heard I’d lost my job something clicked and I realised my psychotic thoughts hadn’t been real at all.

“About a year later I stopped taking my medication and had another episode of mania. I’m still on medication and did self-management training with Bipolar UK (formerly the Manic Depression Fellowship). It’s odd having a chronic mental health diagnosis. I’ve been well for much longer than I was ever ill, but the diagnosis is with me every day.”

Published Date
2014-08-22 09:44:37Z
Last Review Date
2014-07-30 00:00:00Z
Next Review Date
2016-07-30 00:00:00Z


"Simple misunderstandings preoccupied me and seemed sinister"

Andrew is in his 50s and lives on the South Coast. His early psychotic experiences lasted a number of years and had a profound effect on his life. He got better, however, and has been free of symptoms for more than 15 years. He recently completed an MA in Social Policy.

“The first time things didn’t feel right was when I was in my early 20s at university. I’d got some compensation money following an accident in my teens when I lost a leg. My friends were trying to persuade me to buy a house. The idea of going to see an estate agent was intensely frightening. They seemed like oppressive “non-beings” who could expose me as inadequate in some way.

“This uncomfortable feeling got stronger. I stopped going to lectures because I thought it would be too much and failed my degree as a result.

“I then fell out with my parents because of my mental state. Simple misunderstandings preoccupied me and seemed sinister. I was mistrustful and thought they were deliberately not looking after me and trying to make things difficult.

“I ended up living in my car. As I drove around it seemed that other drivers were singling me out for observation. Certain features of the landscape, like radio masts, would also make me feel suspicious. I neglected myself. I felt disadvantaged by my circumstances and by the fact I couldn’t have the happiness that a good job and a relationship would bring. I thought this could make everything right but nobody understood.

“I went into hospital a number of times, was given injections, improved a bit and was then discharged to a hostel. I would get a low-paid job and after a while stop taking my medication. My false or erroneous beliefs became more powerful and at the time they seemed very real.

“I used to imagine that the place where I worked and the people in it weren’t what they seemed, that it was all hiding something else going on beneath the surface. My colleagues seemed to drop significant words or phrases into conversations and give each other signals that excluded me. I would interpret personal or distinctive features as clues to hidden identities, part of another secret world.

“When these false beliefs became stronger it became too difficult to stay in a job. I became a vagrant. The delusions preoccupied me and I travelled around the country trying to uncover signals or evidence of enemy plans to assassinate the Archbishop of Canterbury and bring down the state.

“I believed that people in public sector jobs could live for 500 years and had spent a period of their life as a monarch. The phrase “Jesus Lives” also took on a literal sense.

“In 1991 I ended up back in hospital. I was given tablets I’d never tried before. They made me feel better and after a few months I was discharged. Since then I’ve never needed to go back. I take my pills every day. I see a counsellor once a week and don’t have any more strange ideas. I enjoy my independence and the choices I can make for myself.”

Published Date
2014-08-21 16:37:53Z
Last Review Date
2014-07-30 00:00:00Z
Next Review Date
2016-07-30 00:00:00Z


"Voices in my head would say unkind things"

Delusions and voices have been a daily feature of Richard’s life for more than 10 years. Despite this, he recently completed a master’s degree in broadcast journalism and successfully runs his own business.

“When I was 21 I had a bad experience with hallucinogenic mushrooms, after which I started having delusions and hallucinations. Voices in my head said unkind things and I had suspicious thoughts that felt like they came from outside me. I was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and the thoughts and voices have been with me ever since.

“A lot of the time the thoughts and voices are like another layer of interaction with people and the world. It’s as if there are two coexisting realities. If I am listening to the radio, for instance, the rational part of me knows that the programme is being transmitted to lots of listeners and that it’s a one-way form of communication. My delusional thinking, however, makes me think that the radio can project what I say out loud to the people making the show and all the listeners.

“My delusions will also make me think that a lot of the discussion in the programme has a special meaning or relevance to me. For example, the host of a show might mention that they’re going to the dentist soon. If I happen to have a dental appointment in the near future, then it can seem like the presenter has just dropped that into the conversation as a hidden message. They aren’t going to the dentist, but they want me to understand that they know I will be.

“In truth, when something like that happens it is, of course, just a coincidence, but there’s a part of my thinking for which it becomes another reality.

“I’ve come to accept that they’re an ongoing part of my life, but there are times when it is hard to deal with. Out shopping, it sometimes seems people are looking at me in a sinister way because they don’t like something about me. The truth is they’re probably noticing my clothes or are just looking in my direction.

“Nonetheless it can get me down, to the point where I won’t go out of the house. In the past it has made me feel depressed, even suicidal. At times like that it helps to have friends who can either tell me to stop thinking rubbish or, if needs be, help me work through my delusions and do some reality-checking.

“I had some cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) when I first got these symptoms. It was helpful because it gave me another way to work through negative emotions and keep on top of things that could be disabling. I also take medication and have decided that I always will.

“The media consultancy company I’ve just set up keeps me busy. That’s important too because when I have lots of work on it helps me keep focused, rather than drift off with my delusions.”

Published Date
2014-08-21 16:46:09Z
Last Review Date
2014-07-30 00:00:00Z
Next Review Date
2016-07-30 00:00:00Z


Causes of psychosis

The causes of psychosis have three main classifications.

They are psychosis caused by:

  • psychological (mental) conditions
  • general medical conditions
  • substances, such as alcohol or drugs

The three classifications are described in more detail below.

Psychological causes

The following conditions have been known to trigger psychotic episodes in some people:

  • schizophrenia - a chronic (long-term) mental health condition that causes hallucinations and delusions
  • bipolar disorder - a condition that affects a person’s moods, which can swing from one extreme to another (highs and lows)
  • severe stress or anxiety
  • severe depression - feelings of persistent sadness that last for more than six weeks, including postnatal depression, which some women experience after having a baby
  • lack of sleep

The underlying psychological cause will often influence the type of psychotic episode someone experiences.

For example, a person with bipolar disorder is more likely to have delusions of grandeur, whereas someone with depression or schizophrenia is more likely to develop paranoid delusions.

General medical conditions

The following medical conditions have been known to trigger psychotic episodes in some people:

  • HIV and AIDS - a virus that attacks the immune system (the body’s natural defence against illness and infection)
  • malaria - a tropical disease spread by infected mosquitoes
  • syphilis - a bacterial infection that’s usually passed on through sexual contact
  • Alzheimer’s disease - the most common form of dementia that causes a decline of mental abilities, such as memory and reasoning
  • Parkinson’s disease - a long-term condition that affects the way the brain coordinates body movements, including walking, talking and writing
  • hypoglycaemia - an abnormally low level of sugar (glucose) in the blood
  • lupus - a condition where the immune system attacks healthy tissue
  • Lyme disease - a bacterial infection that’s spread to humans by infected ticks
  • multiple sclerosis - a condition that affects the nerves in the brain and spinal cord, causing problems with muscle movement, balance and vision 
  • brain tumour - a growth of cells in the brain that multiply in an abnormal and uncontrollable way


Alcohol misuse and drug misuse can trigger a psychotic episode.

A person can also experience a psychotic episode if they suddenly stop drinking alcohol or taking drugs after using them for a long time. This is known as withdrawal.

It’s also possible to experience psychosis after drinking large amounts of alcohol or if you’re high on drugs.

Drugs known to trigger psychotic episodes include:

  • cocaine
  • amphetamine (speed)
  • methamphetamine (crystal meth)
  • mephedrone (MCAT or miaow)
  • MDMA (ecstasy)
  • cannabis
  • LSD (acid)
  • psilocybins (magic mushrooms)
  • ketamine

In rare situations, psychosis can also occur as a side effect of some types of medication, or as a result of an overdose of that medication.

For example, levodopa, a medication that’s used to treat Parkinson’s disease, can sometimes cause psychotic episodes. However, any medicine that acts on the brain can cause psychosis with an overdose.

Never stop taking a prescribed medication unless advised to do so by your GP or another qualified healthcare professional responsible for your care.

See your GP if you’re experiencing psychotic side effects due to taking a medication.

The brain

There’s been a great deal of research into how psychosis affects the brain and how changes in the brain can trigger symptoms of psychosis.

Grey matter

Research has revealed that during a psychotic episode several physical and biological changes occur in the brain.

The results of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans have shown that some people with a history of psychosis have less grey matter (the part of the brain responsible for processing thoughts) than most other people. However, it’s not yet fully understood why this is.


Researchers also believe that dopamine plays an important role in psychosis.

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter one of many chemicals the brain uses to transmit information from one brain cell to another. Dopamine is associated with how we feel something is significant, important or interesting.

It’s thought that in people with psychosis, levels of dopamine in the brain become too high. The excess dopamine interrupts specific pathways in the brain that are responsible for some of its most important functions, such as:

  • memory
  • emotion
  • social behaviour
  • self-awareness

Disruption to these important brain functions may explain the symptoms of psychosis.

Evidence for the role of dopamine in psychosis comes from several sources, including brain scans, and the fact that medications known to reduce the effects of dopamine in the brain also reduce symptoms of psychosis.

However, illegal drugs known to increase levels of dopamine in the brain such as cannabis, cocaine and amphetamines can trigger psychosis.

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Published Date
2014-08-22 09:26:44Z
Last Review Date
2014-07-30 00:00:00Z
Next Review Date
2016-07-30 00:00:00Z
Bipolar disorder,Brain,Drug or substance abuse,Immune system,Managing addictions,Mental health conditions,Psychosis,Schizophrenia


Complications of psychosis

Someone experiencing a psychotic episode may self-harm. Suicidal thoughts and an increased risk of suicide are also common.


Self-harming behaviour is a relatively common complication in people with psychosis. A study found that 1 in 10 people with psychosis also had a history of self-harm.

The risk of self-harm is thought to be highest in people who are experiencing their first episode of psychosis who aren’t receiving treatment.

See your GP if you’re self-harming. You can also call the Samaritans on 08457 90 90 90 for support. The mental health charity Mind also has some useful information and advice.

Read more about getting help if you self-harm.

If you think a friend or relative is self-harming, look out for signs of unexplained cuts, bruises or cigarette burns, usually on the wrists, arms, thighs and chest. People who self-harm may keep themselves covered up at all times, even in hot weather. 

Read more about spotting the signs of self-harm in others.

A person who’s self-harming may feel deep shame and guilt, or they may feel confused and worried by their own behaviour. It’s important to approach them with care and understanding.

They may not want to discuss their self-harming behaviour with you, but you could suggest that they speak to their GP or a counsellor on a support helpline.


People with psychosis also have an increased risk of suicide.

It’s estimated that 1 in 5 people with psychosis will attempt suicide at some point in their life, and 1 in 25 people with psychosis will kill themselves.

If you’re feeling suicidal you can:

Read more about getting help if you’re feeling suicidal.

If you’re worried that someone you know may be considering suicide, recommend that they contact one or more of the organisations above and encourage them, in a non-judgemental way, to talk about how they’re feeling.

If the person has previously been diagnosed with a mental health condition, such as depression, you can speak to a member of their care team for help and advice.

Read more about the warning signs of suicide and supporting someone who’s feeling suicidal.


Using antipsychotics on a medium- to long-term basis can cause a number of complications. Some of the more common complications are discussed below.

Weight gain

Weight gain is a complication of many commonly used antipsychotics.

There are two main reasons why weight gain is thought to occur. Antipsychotics can:

  • lead to an increase in appetite
  • make you less active  

You’ll probably be advised to take more exercise to help burn off the excess fat.

Read about getting started with exercise and how to lose weight safety.

Metabolic syndrome

Metabolic syndrome is a term describing a number of related conditions linked with weight gain, such as:

These health conditions can also increase your risk of developing type 2 diabetes, heart disease and, most seriously, heart attack or stroke.

Due to the risk of metabolic syndrome, you’ll usually need to have regular blood tests and blood pressure tests while taking antipsychotics.

If your test results show you have an increased risk of developing a condition such as heart disease, a number of preventative treatments, such as statins, are available to help lower cholesterol levels.

Tardive dyskinesia (TD)

Tardive dyskinesia (TD) is another common complication of long-term antipsychotic use.

TD is a movement disorder where a person experiences involuntary movements, such as twitching, tics, grimaces, tremors and spasms.

It usually starts in the face and mouth before spreading to the rest of the body.

Mind estimates that one in five people who’ve been taking an antipsychotic for four years or more will develop TD.

In some cases, stopping taking an antipsychotic will provide relief from TD symptoms, but in other cases it makes the TD symptoms worse.

However, stopping medication isn’t always safe and has to be balanced against the risk of having a relapse.

In some cases, TD can be a permanent condition.

There are also a number of treatments that can sometimes improve the symptoms of TD, including:

  • clonazepam - a medication that’s used to treat epilepsy (a condition that affects the brain and causes seizures or fits) 
  • vitamin E supplements - check with the doctor in charge of your care before taking vitamin supplements because they’re not safe or suitable for everyone

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Published Date
2014-08-22 09:41:22Z
Last Review Date
2014-07-30 00:00:00Z
Next Review Date
2016-07-30 00:00:00Z


Diagnosing psychosis

You should visit your GP if you’re experiencing psychotic episodes.

It’s important to speak to your GP as soon as possible, because early treatment of psychosis usually has better long-term outcomes. 

Initial assessment

There’s no test to positively diagnose psychosis. However, your GP will look at your symptoms and rule out short-term causes, such as drug misuse.

Your GP may ask questions to determine the cause of your psychosis. For example, they may ask you:

  • whether you’re taking any medication
  • whether you’ve been taking illegal substances
  • how your moods have been - for example, whether you’ve been depressed 
  • how you’ve been functioning day-to-day - for example, whether you’re still working
  • whether you have a family history of mental health conditions, such as schizophrenia
  • about the details of your hallucinations, such as whether you’ve heard voices
  • about the details of your delusions, such as whether you feel people are controlling you
  • about any other symptoms you have


The evidence supporting the early treatment of psychosis means you’re likely to be referred to a specialist urgently. This will either be during or after your first episode of psychosis.

Who you’re referred to will depend on the services available in your area. You may be referred to:

  • a community mental health team - a team of different mental health professionals who provide support to people with complex mental health conditions
  • a crisis resolution team - a team of different mental health professionals who treat people currently experiencing a psychotic episode, who would otherwise require hospitalisation
  • an early intervention team - a team of mental health professionals who work with people who have experienced their first episode of psychosis

These teams are likely to include some or all of the following healthcare professionals:

  • a psychologist - a healthcare professional who specialises in the assessment and treatment of mental health conditions
  • a psychiatrist - a qualified medical doctor who has received further training in treating mental health conditions
  • a community mental health nurse - a nurse with specialist training in mental health conditions

Your psychiatrist will carry out a full assessment to help identify and diagnose any underlying mental health condition that could be causing your symptoms. This will help when planning your treatment for psychosis.

Helping others

The lack of insight associated with psychosis means that people experiencing psychosis aren’t always able to recognise their strange behaviour.

They may be reluctant to visit their GP if they believe there’s nothing wrong with them, and you may need to get help for them.

Someone who has had psychotic episodes in the past may have been assigned a mental health worker (someone who works in social services), so try to contact them to express your concerns.

Someone who is having a psychotic episode for the first time may need a friend, relative or someone else close to them to persuade them to visit their GP.

If they’re having a psychotic episode that’s rapidly getting worse, you should contact their crisis team or - if not available - the duty psychiatrist at their nearest accident and emergency (A&E) department.

If a person who is having a psychotic episode refuses to seek help, and is believed to present a risk to themselves or others, their nearest relative can request that a psychological assessment is carried out. Your local mental health trust can advise you about this.

If someone has very severe psychosis, they can be compulsorily detained at hospital for assessment and treatment under the Mental Health Act (1983) (external link).

Mental Health Act (1983)

The Mental Health Act (1983) is the main piece of legislation that covers the assessment, treatment and rights of people with a mental health condition.

Under the Act, a person can only be compulsorily admitted to hospital or other mental health facility (sectioned) if they:

  • have a mental disorder of a nature or degree that makes admission to hospital appropriate
  • should be detained in the interests of their own safety, for the protection of others, or both

Two doctors need to agree on the above assessment. Depending on the nature of the mental health disorder and the individual’s circumstances, the length of time a person can be sectioned is:

  • 72 hours
  • 28 days
  • 6 months

Before these time periods have elapsed, an assessment will be carried out to determine whether it’s safe for the person to be discharged, or whether further treatment is required.

If you’re held under the Mental Health Act (1983), you can be treated against your will because it’s felt can’t make an informed decision about your treatment. However, certain treatments, such as brain surgery, can’t be carried out unless you consent to treatment.

Any person compulsorily detained has the right to appeal against the decision to a Mental Health Review Tribunal (MHRT). A MHRT is an independent body that decides whether a patient should be discharged from hospital.

Published Date
2014-08-22 09:30:40Z
Last Review Date
2014-07-30 00:00:00Z
Next Review Date
2016-07-30 00:00:00Z
Compulsory hospitalisation,Depression,Hallucinations and delusions,Mental and emotional wellbeing,Mental health conditions,Mental health specialists,Psychosis,Schizophrenia



Psychosis is a mental health problem that causes people to perceive or interpret things differently from those around them. This might involve hallucinations or delusions.

The two main symptoms of psychosis are:

  • hallucinations - where a person hears, sees and, in some cases, feels, smells or tastes things that aren’t there; a common hallucination is hearing voices
  • delusions - where a person believes things that, when examined rationally, are obviously untrue - for example, thinking your next door neighbour is planning to kill you

The combination of hallucinations and delusional thinking can often severely disrupt perception, thinking, emotion and behaviour.

Experiencing the symptoms of psychosis is often referred to as having a psychotic episode.

What causes psychosis?

Psychosis isn’t a condition in itself - it’s triggered by other conditions.

It’s sometimes possible to identify the cause of psychosis as a specific mental health condition, such as:

  • schizophrenia - a condition that causes a range of psychological symptoms, including hallucinations and delusions
  • bipolar disorder - a mental health condition that affects mood; a person with bipolar disorder can have episodes of depression (lows) and mania (highs)
  • severe depression - some people with depression also have symptoms of psychosis when they’re very depressed

Psychosis can also be triggered by traumatic experiences, stress or physical conditions, such as Parkinson’s disease, a brain tumour, or as a result of drug misuse or alcohol misuse.

How often a psychotic episode occurs and how long it lasts can depend on the underlying cause.

For example, schizophrenia can be long-term, but most people can make a good recovery, and about a quarter only have a single psychotic episode. Episodes related to bipolar disorder usually resolve, but may reoccur.

Read more about the causes of psychosis.

Diagnosing psychosis

You should see your GP immediately if you’re experiencing psychotic episodes. It’s important that psychosis is treated as soon as possible, because early treatment usually has better long-term outcomes.

Your GP will look at your symptoms and rule out short-term causes, such as drug misuse. They may ask you some questions to help determine what’s causing your psychosis. For example, they may ask you:

  • whether you’re taking any medication
  • whether you’ve been taking illegal substances
  • how your mood has been - for example, whether you’ve been depressed
  • how you’ve been functioning day-to-day - for example, whether you’re still working
  • whether you have a family history of mental health conditions such as schizophrenia
  • about your hallucinations such as whether you’ve heard voices
  • about your delusions such as whether you feel people are controlling you
  • whether you have any other symptoms

Your GP should refer you to a mental health specialist for further assessment and treatment.

Read more about diagnosing psychosis.

Treating psychosis

Treatment for psychosis involves using a combination of:

  • antipsychotic medication - which can help relieve the symptoms of psychosis
  • psychological therapies - the one-to-one talking therapy cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) has proved successful in helping people with schizophrenia and, in appropriate cases, family therapy has been shown to reduce the need for hospital treatment in people with psychosis
  • social support - support with social needs, such as education, employment or accommodation

Most people with psychosis who get better with medication need to continue taking it for at least a year. Some people need to take medication long term to prevent symptoms reoccurring.

If a person’s psychotic episodes are severe, they may need to be admitted to a psychiatric hospital.

Read more about the treatment of psychosis.

Getting help for others

People with psychosis often have a lack of insight. They’re unaware that they’re thinking and acting strangely.

Due to their lack of insight, it’s often down to the friends, relatives or carers of a person affected by psychosis to seek help for them.

If you’re concerned about someone you know and think they may have psychosis, you could contact their social worker or community mental health nurse if they’ve previously been diagnosed with a mental health condition.

If you think the person’s symptoms are placing them at possible risk of harm you can:

Read more about how to get help for others.


People with a history of psychosis are much more likely to have drug and/or alcohol misuse problems.

This may be because such substances can provide short-term symptom relief, although they usually make symptoms worse in the long term.

People with psychosis also have a higher than average risk of suicide. It’s estimated that 1 in 5 people with psychosis will attempt to commit suicide at some point in their life, and 1 in 25 people with psychosis will kill themselves.

Side effects can also occur if taking antipsychotics on a long-term basis. Weight gain is a common side effect. In rare cases, a person with psychosis may also develop type 2 diabetes.

Read more about the complications of psychosis.

Published Date
2014-08-22 11:24:14Z
Last Review Date
2014-07-30 00:00:00Z
Next Review Date
2016-07-30 00:00:00Z
Bipolar disorder,DVLA,Mental health conditions,Psychosis,Safe drinking,Schizophrenia


Preventing psychosis

It’s not always possible to prevent psychosis.

For example, schizophrenia is caused by a combination of biological, psychological and environmental factors you may not be able to avoid.

However, psychosis caused by taking illegal drugs can be prevented. 


Research has shown that regular cannabis users are 40% more likely to develop a psychotic illness, such as schizophrenia, than people who don’t use the drug.

Cannabis is known to increase levels of dopamine (a chemical that helps transmit messages) in your brain. Therefore, long-term cannabis use may cause permanent changes in your brain’s chemistry that could lead to psychosis.

People who regularly use “skunk” (the herbal type of cannabis specifically grown for its increased strength) are thought to be most at risk.

You should also avoid using other recreational drugs, such as cocaine and ecstasy, because they also increase your risk of developing psychosis.

Read more about the effects of drugs.

Stress and depression

Experiencing prolonged bouts of stress can sometimes trigger an episode of depression. Both stress and depression are major risk factors for psychosis.

The advice below may help reduce your stress levels, preventing depression and subsequent psychotic episodes: 

  • Use a problem-solving approach to deal with stress and worries.
  • Try to identify negative thoughts and change them to positive ones. 
  • Assess your symptoms regularly and speak to your GP or counsellor if problems arise.
  • Take regular exercise. Exercise triggers the release of a mood-boosting brain chemical called serotonin.
  • Learn how to relax using relaxation exercises and tapes.
  • Activities such as yoga and meditation can reduce stress levels. Having a massage can also help relieve tension and anxiety.
  • Join a self-help group to discuss your feelings and concerns. This can help you feel less isolated.
  • Avoid smoking, taking illegal drugs and drinking alcohol. These substances may make you feel better in the short term, but they’ll usually make you feel worse in the long term.

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    <script type="text/javascript">brightcove.createExperiences();</script><noscript><a href="http://www.nhs.uk/flashcont/altflash/sayingnotodrugs.htm">Read transcript for video – Saying no to drugs</a></noscript>
Published Date
2014-08-22 09:42:13Z
Last Review Date
2014-07-30 00:00:00Z
Next Review Date
2016-07-30 00:00:00Z
Depression,Drug or substance abuse,Managing addictions,Mental health conditions,Psychosis,Schizophrenia,Stress



See what the doctor sees with Map of Medicine

The Map of Medicine is used by doctors throughout the NHS to determine the best treatment options for their patients. NHS Choices offers everyone in England exclusive and free access to this cutting-edge internet resource, which lets you see exactly what your doctor sees.

The information in the Map has been approved by the UK’s leading clinical experts, is based on the best available clinical evidence, and is continually updated. To take advantage of this unique resource go to:

Map of Medicine: Schizophrenia


Published Date
2011-09-11 18:17:42Z
Last Review Date
2010-05-18 00:00:00Z
Next Review Date
2012-05-18 00:00:00Z


Symptoms of psychosis

Someone who develops psychosis will have their own unique set of symptoms and experiences, according to their particular circumstances.

However, four main symptoms are associated with a psychotic episode. They are:

  • hallucinations
  • delusions
  • confused and disturbed thoughts
  • lack of insight and self-awareness

These are outlined in more detail below.


Hallucinations are where a person perceives something that doesn’t exist in reality. They can occur in all five of the senses:  

  • sight - someone with psychosis may see colours and shapes, or people or animals that aren’t there
  • sounds - someone with psychosis may hear voices that are angry, unpleasant or sarcastic
  • touch - a common psychotic hallucination is that you are being touched when there is no-one there
  • smell - usually a strange or unpleasant odour
  • taste - some people with psychosis have complained of having a constant unpleasant taste in their mouth


A delusion is where a person has an unshakeable belief in something implausible, bizarre or obviously untrue.

Paranoid delusion and delusions of grandeur are two examples of psychotic delusions.

A person with psychosis will often believe that an individual or organisation is making plans to hurt or kill them. This can lead to unusual behaviour.

For example, a person with psychosis may refuse to be in the same room as a mobile phone because they believe they are mind-control devices.

Someone with psychosis may also have delusions of grandeur. This is where they believe they have some imaginary power or authority.

For example, they may think that they’re the president of a country or that they have the power to bring people back from the dead.

Confused and disturbed thoughts

People with psychosis often have disturbed, confused and disrupted patterns of thought.

Signs of this include:

  • rapid and constant speech
  • random speech for example, they may switch from one topic to another mid-sentence
  • a sudden loss in their train of thought, resulting in an abrupt pause in conversation or activity

Lack of insight

People who have psychotic episodes are often totally unaware their behaviour is in any way strange, or that their delusions or hallucinations are not real.

They may recognise delusional or bizarre behaviour in others, but lack the self-awareness to recognise it in themselves.

For example, a person with psychosis being treated in a psychiatric ward may complain that their fellow patients are mentally unwell, while they’re perfectly normal.

Postnatal psychosis

Postnatal psychosis, also called puerperal psychosis, is a severe form of postnatal depression (a type of depression some women experience after having a baby).

It’s estimated that postnatal psychosis affects around 1 in every 1,000 women who give birth. It most commonly occurs during the first few weeks after having a baby.

Postnatal psychosis is more likely to affect women who already have a mental health condition, such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia

As well as the symptoms of psychosis (see above), symptoms of postnatal psychosis can also include:

  • a high mood (mania) - for example, talking and thinking too much or too quickly
  • a low mood - for example, depression, lack of energy, loss of appetite and trouble sleeping

Postnatal psychosis is regarded as a medical emergency. Contact your GP immediately if you think that someone you know may have developed postnatal psychosis. If this isn’t possible, call NHS 111 or your local out-of-hours service.

If you think there’s a danger of imminent harm, call 999 and ask for an ambulance.

Published Date
2014-08-22 09:22:22Z
Last Review Date
2014-07-30 00:00:00Z
Next Review Date
2016-07-30 00:00:00Z
Bipolar disorder,Depression,Hallucinations and delusions,Mental health conditions,Psychosis,Schizophrenia


Treating psychosis

Treatment for psychosis involves a combination of antipsychotic medicines, psychological therapies and social support.

Your care team

Your treatment is likely to be coordinated by a team of mental health professionals working together. If this is your first psychotic episode, you may be referred to an early intervention team.

Early intervention teams

An early intervention team is a team of healthcare professionals set up specifically to work with people who have experienced their first episode of psychosis.

Some early intervention teams only focus on a certain age range, such as people who are 14-35 years old. Depending on your care needs, early intervention teams aim to provide:

  • a full assessment of your symptoms
  • prescriptions for medications
  • psychological services
  • social, occupational and educational interventions

Read more about mental health services.

Treatment for psychosis will vary, depending on the underlying cause. You’ll receive specific treatment if you’ve been diagnosed with an underlying mental health condition as well.

For example, treatment for bipolar disorder uses a variety of medications, which could include antipsychotics to treat symptoms of mania, lithium and anticonvulsants to help stabilise mood, as well as psychological therapy, such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).

Treatement for schizophrenia usually involves a combination of antipsychotic medication and social support. CBT or another type of psychotherapy called family therapy are also often used. 

Psychosis related to drug or alcohol intoxication or withdrawal may only require a short course of antipsychotics or tranquilisers (which have a calming effect). Referral to an addiction counsellor may then be recommended.


Antipsychotic medicines, also known as neuroleptics, are usually recommended as the first treatment for psychosis. They work by blocking the effect of dopamine (a chemical that transmits messages in the brain). However, they’re not suitable or effective for everyone, as side effects can affect people differently.

In particular, antipsychotics will be monitored closely in people who also have epilepsy (a condition that causes seizures or fits) and cardiovascular disease (conditions that affect the heart, blood vessels or circulation, such as heart disease).

Antipsychotics can usually reduce feelings of anxiety or aggression within a few hours of use, but they may take several days or weeks to reduce other psychotic symptoms, such as hallucinations or delusional thoughts.

Antipsychotics can be taken orally (by mouth) or given as an injection. There are several “slow-release” antipsychotics, where you only need one injection every two to six weeks.

Depending on the underlying cause of your psychosis, you may only need to take antipsychotics until your psychosis subsides. However, if you have a condition such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, you may need to take antipsychotics on a long-term basis to prevent further episodes of psychosis.

Side effects

Antipsychotics can have side effects, although not everyone will experience them, and their severity will differ from person to person.

Side effects can include:

See the patient information leaflet that comes with your medicine for a full list of possible side effects.

In addition, long-term use of antipsychotics can lead to complications such as weight gain and diabetes.

Read more about the complications of psychosis.

Tell your GP if you have side effects that are becoming particularly troublesome. There may be an alternative antipsychotic medicine you can take.

Never stop taking medication prescribed for you unless advised to do so by a qualified healthcare professional responsible for your care.

Suddenly stopping prescription medication could trigger a relapse (a return of your symptoms). When it’s time for you to stop taking your medication, it will be done gradually and under close observation. 

Psychological treatment

Psychological treatment can help reduce the intensity and anxiety caused by psychosis. Some possible psychological treatments are discussed below.

Cognitive behavioural therapy

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) for psychosis is based on an understanding of how people make sense of their experiences and why some people become distressed by them.

The aim of CBT is to identify unhelpful thinking patterns and emotions that may be causing your unwanted feelings and behaviours. It’s then possible to learn to replace this thinking with more realistic and balanced thoughts.

A CBT therapist may encourage you to consider different ways of understanding what’s happening to you. The aim is to help you achieve goals that are meaningful and important to you, such as reducing your distress, returning to work or university, or regaining a sense of control.

Family therapy

Family therapy is known to be an effective form of treatment for people with psychosis.

Family therapy is a way of helping both you and your family to cope with your condition. After having an episode of psychosis, you may rely on your family members for care and support. While most family members are happy to help, the stress of caring for somebody can place a strain on any family.

Family therapy involves a series of informal meetings that take place over a period of six months. Meetings may include:

  • discussing your condition and how it might progress, plus the available treatments  
  • exploring ways of supporting someone with psychosis 
  • deciding how to solve practical problems caused by psychosis, such as planning how to manage future psychotic episodes 

Self-help groups

If you’re experiencing episodes of psychosis, you may benefit from being around other people who’ve had similar experiences.

For example, the mental health charity Mind has over 150 local Mind networks, which may be able to put you in touch with a support group in your area, as well as providing a range of other useful services.

Mental Health Act (1983)

If you’re experiencing a particularly severe psychotic episode, and it’s thought that you present a significant danger to yourself or others, you can be compulsory detained at a hospital or a psychiatric clinic under the Mental Health Act (1983) (external link).

If you’re detained under the Act, every effort will be made to obtain your consent to treatment. However, treatment can be carried out without your consent if it’s felt you don’t have the mental capacity to understand the issues surrounding treatment.

An independent panel will regularly review your case and progress. Once they feel you’re no longer a danger to yourself and others, you’ll be able to leave the hospital or clinic. However, your care team may recommend that you remain in the hospital or clinic on a voluntary basis.

Violence and aggression

Acts of violence and aggression are fairly uncommon in people with psychosis. They’re more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators. However, there may be times when your behaviour places yourself or others at risk of harm.

Mental health staff have been specially trained to deal with aggressive behaviour.

If you fail to respond to requests to calm down, it may be necessary to hold you down without hurting you. This is known as a physical intervention. You may then be moved to a secluded room to calm down.

In some cases, you may need to be given medication that will quickly make you very relaxed. This is known as rapid tranquillisation.

You’ll be asked to take the medication voluntarily, but if you refuse, you can be treated against your consent. This may involve giving you an injection of a tranquiliser.

It’s important to stress that these methods are only used in extreme circumstances, and they’re not routinely used to treat psychosis.

Advance decisions

If you’re at risk of having psychotic episodes in the future, and there are certain treatments you don’t want to have, it’s possible to pre-arrange a legally binding advance decision (previously known as an advance directive).

An advanced decision is a written statement about what you’d like health professionals and your family or friends to do if you experience another psychotic episode. You may also want to include the contact details of your care team.

To create an advance decision, you need to make your wishes clear in writing and ask a witness to sign it. You should include specific details about any treatments you don’t want and specific circumstances in which they may apply.

However, it’s important to remember that the advance decision can be overruled if a person is subsequently detained under the Mental Health Act.

Although your doctors will try to take your wishes into account when deciding on treatment, they may decide it’s in your best interests not to follow the advance decision.

Published Date
2014-08-22 09:35:35Z
Last Review Date
2014-07-30 00:00:00Z
Next Review Date
2016-07-30 00:00:00Z
Antipsychotic drugs,Bipolar disorder,Cognitive behavioural therapy,Compulsory hospitalisation,DVLA,Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency,Mental health conditions,Psychological therapy,Psychosis,Schizophrenia