Perhaps more than any other mental illness, schizophrenia is poorly understood. This lack of knowledge can breed fear and misconceptions about the condition.
Schizophrenia is a chronic and severe mental disorder that affects how a person thinks, feels, and behaves. People with schizophrenia may seem like they have lost touch with reality. Although schizophrenia is not as common as other mental disorders, the symptoms can be very disabling.
Schizophrenia is a highly stigmatized and misunderstood condition. This stigma can make an already difficult life harder for those with schizophrenia by lowering their quality of life and interfering with their ability to get a job or the treatment they need. Working to overcome others’ misconceptions often becomes part of successfully living with schizophrenia.
Three Misconceptions About Schizophrenia
Misconception 1: People with schizophrenia are violent. “To a small degree, this is true,” says John Wilson, MD, a psychiatrist with the Fairfax-Falls Church Community Services Board in Virginia. But he emphasizes that the rate of violence in people with schizophrenia is just slightly elevated, and it’s much more likely that they’ll be victims of violence, not the perpetrators.
Much of the stigma of violence comes from entertainment and news media, which links cases of random violent acts against strangers with mental illnesses like schizophrenia, says Krista Baker, a licensed clinical professional counselor and supervisor of the Early Psychosis Intervention Clinic at the Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center in Baltimore.
With schizophrenia, people often develop paranoia and hear voices. They may believe the government is out to get them and assume what Dr. Wilson describes as “bizarre delusional superpowers,” insisting that the president of the United States or some other important figure is talking to them. A person with schizophrenia may not make sense when they speak, Wilson says, explaining that this behavior can instill fear in others and cause them to back away.
Misconception 2: People with schizophrenia can’t work. People may believe that people with schizophrenia are incapable of holding a job because they are unpredictable, unable to focus, or lazy. If potential employers learn about the disease, they may be less likely to hire a job candidate, although Wilson notes that it’s illegal for employers to ask about a person’s medical history. “If individuals don’t reveal they have schizophrenia, in theory, it shouldn’t be an issue,” he says.
Misconception 3: Schizophrenia is not treatable. While there’s no cure for schizophrenia, medications can treat the symptoms, Wilson says. And though none of the medications available work all the time, they work most of the time and often quite well.
For those with schizophrenia, staying on medication is essential. The National Alliance on Mental Illness reports that as many as half of the people diagnosed with schizophrenia have positive outcomes when they receive appropriate treatment. People with schizophrenia can help themselves and others by adhering to their treatment plans, Wilson says. With treatment, fewer people with schizophrenia may exhibit symptoms that add to the stigma of the disease.
Fighting the Schizophrenia Stigma
Baker sees the stigma as a double-edged sword. “To fight the stigma, you have to talk about it,” she says. “And then there’s the backlash.”
She describes the people who speak up about their schizophrenia diagnosis as heroic, saying it makes a difference when you can associate a face with the condition. Through education, she notes, the public may someday come to understand that people with schizophrenia can live and function normally with the right treatment and medication.
People who don’t want to speak out on their own might find the courage to do so through a group, Baker says, recalling a Maryland Senate hearing where 80 or more people, including many with schizophrenia, spoke up about the condition. “A lot of people spoke of their personal experience,” she says. Family members also can help by speaking out. Talk with your doctor about finding a support or advocacy group for those with schizophrenia or their loved ones.
“If we continue to speak out, educate the public on what schizophrenia is and isn’t, and connect faces to the illness, we may move past the stigma,” says Baker.
Sadly schizophrenia attracts many ideas and beliefs that just don’t stand up to the evidence. Over the last hundred years, we have accumulated an enormous amount of research evidence to guide the way that we treat and respond to schizophrenia. However, it still receives less research funding than other physical conditions such as heart disease or cancer. If we are to finally blow away all of these myths and the others that will surely follow in their path we need governments to fund much more research into this life changing condition.