Few people really understand this severe mental health condition – and the stigma attached to schizophrenia remains so great that the illness itself is often used as a throwaway insult! Here we demolish the untruths surrounding a disorder that affects millions worldwide
We’ve all felt paranoia at some point in our lives, those days when it feels that even the plants are out to get us. We’ve all suffered from delusions, too, whether it’s the teen musician hoping to be the next superstar, or the school crush where love is unrequited.
We all know how unpleasant these fleeting blows are, yet for those of us diagnosed with schizophrenia, delusions and paranoia are the daily treadmill we walk on.
I was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia in 2009, after a hospitalisation. It may surprise you that I, too, wasn’t immune to the myths and misunderstandings about this illness, and didn’t know what to expect. But, over time, I came to read up about the condition and get more savvy.
Simply put, schizophrenia is a severe mental illness where people experience psychosis for the longer term. People with schizophrenia often lose touch with reality, see visions, hear voices, or experience delusions.
Sometimes, the stigma of schizophrenia is worse than a good day actually living with it. I’ve lost friends, and can count quite a few people who are scared of me. Of course, this is completely unjustified – schizophrenia can be treated with antipsychotic medication, and managed as an outpatient by a mental health community team. With this care in place, people diagnosed with schizophrenia can go on to be re-diagnosed with less severe conditions, hold down jobs and relationships, and live meaningful lives.
So, in case you missed the memo, here are eight myths about schizophrenia that are simply untrue:
1. MYTH: People with schizophrenia are violent
Research has established that people with schizophrenia are more likely to be victims of crime, rather than perpetrators. Sadly, the public’s prejudices will continue, as the media still chooses to report the rare incidences where a person unwell with schizophrenia has committed a crime. For most people experiencing symptoms of schizophrenia, the experience itself is terrifying, so it seems ironic the terror the diagnosis can provoke in some people.
2. MYTH: Having schizophrenia means you’re a bad person
We’ve all seen on Twitter, or heard down the pub, people speculating that someone has some sort of schizophrenia – and it’s not a description that’s intended to be flattering. You wouldn’t use ‘cancer-sufferer’ or ‘wheelchair-user’ as a derogatory comment to insult others, so why use schizophrenia? Another prime example of stigma I’ve experienced is feeling like I’m not always being listened to or heard by medical professionals. For example, if they ask if we’re feeling suicidal, and in our notes, if we’ve said no, they write: “Denies feeling suicidal.” It can feel like we’re not believed when we say we’re doing OK.
3.MYTH: Schizophrenia means split personality or multiple personalities
Mental health writer and speaker, Cara Lisette, says: “One thing that I still see a lot is referring to schizophrenia as a ‘split personality’, which is a myth that’s been around for longer than I’ve been alive, and seems to be persisting.”
This resonates with me and other people diagnosed with schizophrenia. It possibly stems from the term’s Latin meaning: schizophrenia literally means ‘splitting of the mind’. However, having split or multiple personalities isn’t true of people with schizophrenia. Instead, it’s much more likely that a person will hold delusions, false beliefs, hear voices, or hallucinate (the experience of schizophrenia varies wildly from person to person).
4. MYTH: Schizophrenia is rare
People assume, because they don’t know someone who has schizophrenia, that it’s rare – but one in 100 people will have been diagnosed. It’s more likely to be true that a handful of your Facebook friends have this condition, or someone at your workplace, or on your street. The chances are that they’ve kept it concealed, and continue to do so, due to stigma.
5. MYTH: People with schizophrenia can ‘think past it’ or ‘ignore thoughts’
Being told to ‘ignore thoughts’ as if they’ll just go away is annoying, yet not uncommon. It’s a similar adage to believing someone with schizophrenia can ‘just snap out of it’ or ‘pull-up their socks’. The brain is an extremely complex organ, and scientists are still learning things about it. To think schizophrenia is as simple to overcome as ignoring thoughts or snapping out of it, denies us our suffering, and is unhelpful.
6. MYTH: Schizophrenia means hallucinating people
Another myth, according to people diagnosed with schizophrenia, is that sufferers hallucinate about people regularly, and think they’re real. This is how it’s often shown in films (in Donnie Darko, for example), but it’s actually quite rare.
You see, schizophrenia isn’t a ‘one-size-fits-all’ diagnosis. Some people with the diagnosis may even find their experience a positive one, though many people will see scary visions or feel distressing sensations. For me, though, I hold the fixed belief that I’m Britain’s most wanted criminal!
7. MYTH: Drugs cause schizophrenia
As well as dealing with an illness people use to insult others, I’ve known people to assume that my condition is due to experimental drug use in my teens. While trying cannabis as a youngster didn’t help my mental health, it was actually stress that was the real springboard for the first episode of psychosis, which eventually led to a suicide attempt before my paranoid schizophrenia diagnosis.
8. MYTH: People with schizophrenia never recover
Being told I had paranoid schizophrenia felt like a life sentence to me. That was more than 10 years ago, and since then I’ve been re-diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder – but that’s just one example of how things have got better. Since I was discharged from hospital, I’ve gained a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree, made friends, and had two stable romantic relationships (the latest one is still going strong!). Just because I received a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia, doesn’t mean I can’t live a fulfilling, happy life. And you can, too.
If you are struggling with suicidal thoughts, know there are people out there to support you.
Call Samaritans on 116 123 or email them on [email protected]
The Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM) is a line for men, and is open from 5pm–midnight: 0800 58 58 58
Papyrus supports young people under 35 years old. Call them on 0800 068 41 41
Shout offers a crisis text line. Text ‘SHOUT’ to 85258
Visit counselling directory for more support or speak to a qualified counsellor.