In July 0f 2012, a gunman opened fire in a crowded Colorado movie theatre, killing 12 people and injuring 70 others. The killer was James Holmes, a PhD student who is said to have had a psychotic break. Holmes is now serving 12 life sentences in prison, but not everyone who experiences a psychotic break with reality goes on to commit mass murder or even becomes violent. In fact, it can happen to just about anyone.
The term psychotic break signifies a loss of contact with reality. What the sufferer feels, hears, sees, and even tastes relates to something with no external context much like a hallucination. Like the movie that would have been playing in that Colorado theatre, what is happening before the person suffering from the psychotic break isn’t real, but it sure feels like it, prompting fear, irrational behavior, and even slurred speech.
An episode like this one usually doesn’t just come out of the blue and psychotic break sufferers do not normally “snap”. A psychotic break usually follows other psychotic symptoms or drug use. Psychotherapists can usually track psychotic episodes in their patients, but many who experience a psychotic break will isolate themselves while it’s happening.
As with many of the misunderstood indicators of psychosis, a person who comes off as difficult or quirky might actually be suffering from mental illness. Trauma, deep depression, or even a bad breakup can put someone who was already struggling with their mental health at greater risk for a psychotic break, which is why treating these episodes requires compassion and understanding.