What is Psychosis?

Psychosis is a term used to describe when a person’s experience of reality is affected and they believe in or see things that are not real. People experiencing psychosis have difficulty with the way they see reality and can be easily confused. Sometimes, psychosis is referred to as a ‘loss of reality’.

Psychosis can change the way you think, act, sense and feel. This can be frightening and confusing. People around you may also be confused about what is going on.

In most cases, psychosis is experienced as an ‘episode’ — a period of sudden-onset symptoms like delusions or hallucinations. Some people will have only one episode of psychosis, while others will have further episodes through their life. Importantly, psychosis can be treated and most people make a good recovery.

Types of psychosis

Psychosis isn’t a mental illness diagnosis in itself. It is a symptom associated with many different mental disorders. Diagnosis of psychosis usually depends upon the type of symptoms, what brought on the illness, and how long symptoms last. The main mental disorders with psychosis are schizophrenia, where a person has an altered experience of reality; and bipolar disorder, where a person experience’s extreme highs (mania) and extreme lows (depression). Psychosis can also be drug-induced, by an adverse reaction to prescription drugs, excessive use of alcohol, or use of recreational and illicit drugs (including amphetamine-type substances and cannabis for some people).

How common is psychosis in young people?

Psychosis affects about 3% of the population. Males are more likely to be affected than females with 64.8% of people experiencing their first psychotic episode before the age of 25.[i] Having a psychotic episode doesn’t mean that you have a mental illness. More than 75% of psychotic experiences don’t progress to a diagnosed illness.[ii]

[i] Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, Estimating the number of people with psychotic illness treated by public specialized mental health services, https://www1.health.gov.au/internet/publications/publishing.nsf/Content/mental-pubs-p-psych10-toc~mental-pubs-p-psych10-exe~mental-pubs-p-psych10-exe-est

[ii] Headspace, What is psychosis and the effects on mental health, https://headspace.org.au/young-people/understanding-psychosis-for-young-people/

What causes psychosis?

There’s no one cause of psychosis. A number of different factors can contribute to it, including:

  • mental illness such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or severe depression
  • external factors like very stressful events and social disadvantage
  • genetics where there is a family history
  • alcohol and other drug use.

What are the symptoms of psychosis?

Symptoms of psychosis can be different for different people. Some may have a range of symptoms, while others may only experience one. Common symptoms of psychosis include:

  • Confused thinking — Your thoughts may be jumbled or may speed up or slow down. You may have trouble concentrating or understanding, and find it hard to follow a conversation, express yourself, or remember things.
  • Delusions — You may have unusual ideas or beliefs about yourself or the world and be unable to tell what is real from what you believe.
  • Hallucinations — You may hear, see, smell or taste something that isn’t actually there.
  • Changed feelings — You might feel strange or cut off from the world, experience mood swings, or feel or show less emotion than usual. You may have increased suspiciousness, irritability, or aggression.
  • Changed behaviours — These can include withdrawing from family, friends and usual activities; paying less attention to personal hygiene; becoming preoccupied with a particular topic; and inappropriate or odd behaviour, such as laughing or crying at the wrong times.

This example might help make things clearer, by putting these symptoms into perspective:

Lee is 17 years old and in Year 11. She helps care for her mum who lives with severe depression. Some days her mum seems okay, but other days she’s not. Lee finds she wakes up feeling stressed each morning, wondering how her mum will be. On days where her mum seems fine in the morning, Lee has trouble concentrating in class, because she worries whether her mum will still be good when she gets home. On days when her mum isn’t well, Lee tends to keep to herself and not engage in conversations with her friends because she feels sad.

Lately, Lee has been worried about not keeping up with her schoolwork. She has noticed that sometimes in class she has a lot of trouble concentrating or understanding what the teacher is saying. When the teacher asks her a question, her mind sometimes goes blank, and she can’t remember what class she’s in. Other times, she has trouble explaining what she means because it feels like she is thinking extra-slowly, and that her thoughts don’t make sense at all. Lee also feels that a group of girls at school are spying on her. She feels they are always watching her when she eats lunch, that they listen to what she is talking about with others, and follow her to the bus stop in the afternoons. As this becomes more annoying to Lee, she builds up the courage to confront the group who have no idea what she is talking about and tell her she is imagining things.  

 In the example above, Lee has some very normal reactions to her life:

  • feeling anxious each morning, wondering how her mum will be
  • having trouble concentrating in class when she’s worrying about her mum
  • not wanting to engage with her friends when she feels sad.

However, Lee also shows some symptoms of psychosis:

  • having trouble understanding some of what her teacher says
  • not remembering what class she’s in
  • having trouble explaining what she means
  • feeling like she’s thinking slowly and that her thoughts don’t make sense
  • being convinced that others are spying on her, listening to her, and following her.

What can you do to feel better?

If you’re having some strange experiences you can’t explain, or have noticed thoughts and behaviours that are unusual, make sure you speak to someone. This could be a teacher, support worker or a counsellor. You should also visit your doctor, who can develop a treatment plan to help you feel better. This might involve speaking to a mental health professional and/or being prescribed medication. The sooner you get help, the faster your recovery will be.

Other things you can do include:

  • maintaining a healthy lifestyle by getting enough sleep, eating well and exercising
  • staying in touch with family and friends
  • reducing stress (which can trigger psychosis) by:
  • avoiding alcohol and other drugs
  • learning about psychosis, including recognising your triggers and warning signs, how to avoid relapsing and how to get help when you need it.

Where to go for help

Psychosis is a serious issue that can have a big impact on your life, so don’t ignore any symptoms if you notice them. Make sure you visit your doctor to find out what is going on.

To find out more, you can call:

Kids Help Line — 1800 55 1800

Headspace — 1800 650 890

Lifeline — 13 11 14. You can also ask for help via text message on 0477 13 11 14

You can find more information about psychosis at:


Orygen Youth Health


Children of Parents with a Mental Illness

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