What is psychosis?

Psychosis is a generic psychiatric term used to describe a mental state where there has been some loss of contact with reality.

Psychosis is most likely to occur in young adults and is quite a common problem, affecting around three per cent of the younger adult population. Most people who have a ‘psychotic episode’ go on to make a full recovery and lead a normal life.

It is important to know that psychosis can happen to anyone and with treatment a full recovery can be achieved.

Psychotic is often misused in everyday speech to refer to a psychopathic mental state, which is a different problem altogether.

Psychosis is often characterised by some or all of the following:

  • Confused thinking – sentences are not understandable, abnormal ideas, difficulty concentrating
  • False beliefs – delusional ideas, difficult to persuade that these are not real, content is changeable
  • Hallucinations – see, hear, smell, taste or feel something that is not actually there. Content may change
  • Changed feeling and/or behaviour – mood may be different for no apparent reason, behaviours may change, becoming over active or lethargic for example, or suffer from an inability to sleep.

Symptoms vary in individuals and can change over time.

Psychotic episodes usually occur in three stages:


The prodrome is the initial stage of psychosis. Early symptoms may be vague and not distinguishable from your normal behaviour. Changes may be slow, and you, and people who know you, may not notice these changes straight away.

Acute Phase

The word psychosis is used to describe a condition that affects the mind, where there has been some loss of contact with reality. This can lead to changes in mood, behaviour and the beliefs you may hold.


Psychosis can be treated and most people recover. With the right help it’s likely you will never experience more than one psychotic episode. Therefore, it is vitally important to seek help at the earliest stage possible; this is commonly the role of family or friends.

It is possible to prevent someone who is experiencing prodromal symptoms from going on to develop a full psychotic experience, if the correct interventions are provided early enough. Even if a psychotic episode does occur there are many proven ways of aiding and helping recovery, and preventing further episodes.

The causes of psychosis

The current thinking is that we all develop a level of vulnerability throughout early life. A combination of biological, environmental and social factors shape this vulnerability, each factor will have a different amount of influence in each individual. The vulnerability determines how much stress you can cope with. Once the stress levels in your life breach that safe level, the symptoms described above may be triggered, and you may have a psychotic episode.

Research into the cause of psychosis is ongoing and as a result understanding of these problems changes continually.