What is psychosis and how can I recognise it?

There are many myths about psychosis. Chief among them that those of us who experience it are dangerous individuals. While there are predictors of violence towards others in psychosis (such as co-occuring substance use), generally those experiencing psychosis are more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators.

As Autistic people, or parents of Autistic children, we can often find ourselves lost when it comes to mental health support systems. For many years, poor mental health has been treated as a part of the diagnostic criteria.

This is 100% incorrect.

While mental health issues are incredibly common amongst Autistic people, they are generally the result of trauma, and never a direct result of being Autistic. I know for myself that being in the CAMHS system, my mother and I were invalidated at every turn.

What they never managed to recognise in me was that I was entering what would be called the “prodromal phase” of psychosis. What this essentially means is that they missed the warning signs that I was heading towards psychosis.

What were the warning signs?

One of my earliest memories is of a hand materialising out of my mothers bed, to offer me a chocolate bar in my cot. I believe I was around 2-3 years old. When I reached out for the chocolate bar, the hand disappeared. I cried and cried until my mother came to comfort me.

I was unable to voice what I had just witnessed.

Throughout childhood and teenage years, I experienced terrifying “night terrors”. What they actually were was hallucinations and waking nightmares that were so vivid I still remember them to this day. They were put down to fevers by doctors, even when there was no evidence of a fever.

Finally at the age of 18, my mind snapped. I started hearing voices and suffering paranoid delusions. No one would be aware of this until I was well into my twenties, because the psychiatrist believed my mask, and I buried the experience under mountains of prescription and illicit substances.

Now, at 31, I have been stable for around 5 years, finally receiving appropriate treatment and care for my mental health conditions.

So, how can you recognise psychosis in your child or teenager?

First of all, look for a change in affect. This means a withdrawal from usual behaviour, often manifesting as a depressive state. Alternatively, they may experience a euphoric state that leads to them taking risks to their personal safety, known as mania or hypomania.

Perhaps they have become irritable or aggressive? While psychosis can’t be used as a solid predictor of violence, they may become more overwhelmed.

Does your child or teenager appear to interact or react to stimuli in the environment that doesn’t exist? When I am stressed, I often hear phones ringing, doorbells chiming, or people calling my name. None of it is actually happening.

Finally, are they becoming suspicious or paranoid? People experiencing psychosis can often develop paranoid delusions. For me this included beliefs such as my food being poisoned, or that I was trapped in a computer simulation.

While full blown psychosis doesn’t usually manifest before the late teenage years, it is important to be aware of the signs. I often wonder what my life would have looked like if someone had spotted the indicators earlier.

We can’t allow mental health services to fail our Autistic children and adults.

Published by David Gray-Hammond

David Gray-Hammond is an autistic mental health and addiction advocate living in the South East of England. He is in recovery from addiction and psychosis, as well as other complex mental health conditions. He was diagnosed as autistic seven months after achieving sobriety, and is resolved to share his experiences with the world in the hopes of being the person that he needed when he was younger.

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