Schizophrenia is a misunderstood mental condition.
Despite the disorder’s unfortunate common status, most people don’t know what does and doesn’t count as schizophrenic.
Sometimes, admitting schizophrenia can lead to job loss, the end of relationships, and social ostracizing. People just don’t know how to deal with the idea of that someone they know has schizophrenia – partially because they don’t really know what it is.
In some cases, this lack of a clear public understanding even leads to the idea that schizophrenia is entirely made up to “shun” people who are just a “little different”. In other cases, people think schizophrenia is an incurable disease that renders someone hopelessly and increasingly delusional, crazy and incapable of perceiving reality.
Schizophrenia is not about putting a label on abnormal behavior. It’s about helping people who suffer from a condition that drastically warps their vision of the world in a very harmful way. Sadly, most schizophrenics don’t worry as much about their symptoms and occasional psychosis than they do about the connotations their disorder carries around – and the consequences of being labeled schizophrenic.
I’m going to help put a rest to the issue by giving you a broad overview of this misunderstood mental condition, why it’s misunderstood, and how you can treat schizophrenia disorder.
I’ve mentioned that schizophrenia is a disease that drastically warps reality as it appears in the minds of schizophrenic people. It affects emotions, actions, and perceptions. Schizophrenia can range from having trouble with emotional expression and social interaction, to hearing voices and seeing things.
The disorder’s symptoms, categorized as cognitive (related to the capacity to think and deduce information), negative (modified or disrupted behavior), and positive (behaviors not seen in normal people). Cognitive symptoms include an inability to think clearly, trouble with memory, and bad decision-making skills. Negative symptoms include the inability to express oneself, lack of motivation or happiness/pleasure, and withdrawal. Positive symptoms include psychosis – and thus hallucinations and/or delusions – and erratic mental or physical behavior.
Schizophrenia usually involves psychosis, although the specific kind of psychosis is a case-by-case matter. Not every schizophrenic has delusions of grandeur or other powerfully warped thoughts, and not every schizophrenic hears voices or sees things and people that aren’t there. However, psychosis isn’t unique to schizophrenia. There are cases of manic depression, dementia, and certain personality disorders that can also include psychosis as a part of their symptoms.
That isn’t to say that schizophrenia isn’t a serious disorder. It’s marked not just by its symptoms but also the fact that these symptoms make life difficult, to say the least. Psychosis – or a warped reality – even when minor, can severely impact lives. They can make us fear others when we have no cause to do so, they can make simple tasks like going to the market or driving a car very, very dangerous, and they can make us question our own judgment at every moment in life.
Schizophrenia cannot be “cured” conventionally, but it can be managed, the symptoms reduced and muted, and dealt with in a way that makes for a long, prosperous and fulfilling life. That’s an important message – especially given how prone the public is to equating schizophrenia with everything other than prosperity and fulfillment. And in some cases, schizophrenia – or more aptly, psychosis – is a temporary state rather than a life-long condition.
When it comes to beating the disease, treatment usually involves antipsychotic medication to mitigate hallucinations and/or delusions, and other forms of medication based on the symptoms one is suffering. Therapy is also critical in helping a schizophrenic differentiate what is real from what isn’t in the event of a hallucination, and therapy can help decrease the frequency of schizophrenic symptoms.
Why Schizophrenia is So Misunderstood
Schizophrenia does not include the symptom of multiple personalities. It doesn’t always mean someone has an imaginary friend or sees and hears things that aren’t real. Schizophrenia can be mild, manifesting itself in symptoms that don’t include hallucination. When that symptom does play a role, it’s usually auditory rather than visual. However, we’ve gotten used to associating split personalities with schizophrenia, to the point where even more recent examples of schizophrenia in media do a bad job at accurately portraying the disorder.
Split personalities occur typically in what is called a dissociative identity disorder. This used to be known as the multiple personality disorder until it became clear that that doesn’t accurately reflect the broad scope of the disease. Schizophrenia – which is hallmarked by psychosis – is confused with dissociative identity disorder because one possible symptom of psychosis is hearing voices. It’s important to understand that these are different conditions, and while it’s possible to suffer from both, someone with multiple personalities isn’t necessarily schizophrenic.
Most schizophrenics lead quiet, average lives, not marked by violent outbursts or extreme delusions, with a mental disability that puts them at a disadvantage and presents its set of challenges but not necessarily in a way that necessitates constant supervision and psychiatric institution. After all, over one percent of the US adult population is diagnosed with schizophrenic symptoms lasting over a year. That’s over two million Americans.
It’s not just our warped perceptions of schizophrenia that cause misunderstandings – it’s that we’re scared of schizophrenics. Even with a better explanation of how psychosis works and what it entails, it’s not hard to see why it leads people to fear schizophrenics just a little bit – after all, they sometimes hear and see things that aren’t there, without much ability to tell whether they’re real.
Most schizophrenics, once aware of their disorder, work to mitigate its effects and can with time differentiate between what is real and what isn’t – even if the hallucinations continue. Furthermore, schizophrenia isn’t a constant state of delusion – it’s typically the heightened potential of suffering a psychotic break. That means that, other than in very severe cases, schizophrenics retain the capacity to perceive reality normally, and with therapy, they can use their lucid moments as a framework for deciding what is and isn’t real in the event of psychosis.
Schizophrenia and Epilepsy
One common coexistence in mental health is schizophrenia with epilepsy. While schizophrenia is a mental disorder, epilepsy is usually a physical condition – a neurological disorder, highlighted by a physical injury or genetic brain issue. However, it’s not an imagined connection. Schizophrenics are six times more likely than average to suffer from epilepsy, and epileptics were eight times more likely to develop schizophrenia than average.
So, what’s up? Why are the two linked? One theory is that schizophrenia and epilepsy are linked to similar abnormal brain development. Another is that the high correlation may just be a case of misdiagnosis, as some symptoms and side effects of psychosis are like those of a mild seizure.
This is important because it drives home the point that, often, schizophrenics are a danger to only one person: themselves. It’s not a disorder to be feared, but one to be treated with the concern it deserves. Millions of Americans are schizophrenic, and most of them don’t get the treatment they need. Some even end up on the street because of a combination of stigma and their distrust of others. Others are high-functioning individuals despite their diagnosis but must keep it in secret for fear of what might happen if others found out.
The Schizophrenic Spectrum
Like most mental diseases displaying variance in symptoms and differences in severity, we’ve come to replace most subtypes when explaining schizophrenia, with the understanding of a schizophrenic spectrum.
It still helps to have classifications such as catatonic and residual, while being able to explain the difference between paranoid schizophrenia (or schizophrenic symptoms with paranoia, as it’s come to be known) and a schizoaffective disorder – but think of these definitions as markers on a larger spectrum that tackles the possibility that someone may have a combination of mental symptoms that describe a host of different issues, placing them somewhere on a treatable spectrum rather than forcing them into a “category” or “subtype” they don’t belong in.
The issue with mental illness is that it’s such an individual matter – not just because a person’s personality and experiences greatly mold the way they adapt and live with the condition, but because there are so many factors, symptoms, possible comorbidities and treatment options. It’s not an exaggeration to say that every case is unique, in some way.
That’s why we’ve embraced the spectrum. On the schizophrenic spectrum, a person’s exact diagnosis is determined by:
- The symptoms they exhibit, including cognitive, negative and positive symptoms.
- The factors that most influence the existence of their disorder, from environmental factors and trauma to genetics.
- Related illnesses that either helped cause or came into effect partially because of schizophrenia.
- And more.
As mentioned above, schizophrenia can also be paired with other mental issues – epilepsy is one with a strong correlation, and another are mood disorders. Just like how depression and anxiety often go hand in hand, so can schizophrenic patients be affected by mood disorders like depression and manic depression – this is a combined diagnosis usually called a schizoaffective disorder.
If you or someone you love is exhibiting symptoms of psychosis or other examples of schizophrenic behavior, it doesn’t hurt to consult a professional. Schizophrenia isn’t always obvious – and it’s usually a condition that develops, rather than one people are born with.
Taking Better Care of Our Schizophrenics
The first thing we can do to help those around us suffering from symptoms of schizophrenia is stop associating them with negative imagery and violent actions. We should remember to judge people by their character – not their disabilities, or whether they suffer from delusions or hallucinations.
Next, it’s important to remember that schizophrenia is a spectrum disorder. Every case is unique, and there is no one proper best example of what the disorder looks like – just a long host of symptoms related to psychosis. Not split or multiple personalities.
It’s also important that we help spread the word on this. When the topic of mental illness or specifically schizophrenia comes appears, remember to help remind others that for every violent case of schizophrenia, there are hundreds of thousands of others that anything but violent.
While awareness is important, it’s also important to note what we’re already doing to help others cope with schizophrenia. Like so many mental illnesses, schizophrenia often goes untreated in the United States. The biggest culprit for that is the way our mental healthcare works, and the fact that expenses continue to act as an obstacle on the way to a decent chance at medication and more long-term treatment.
If possible, do what you can to help by either donating to the right charities, or by spreading the word on what these charities are doing for schizophrenia in the US, and in some cases around the rest of the world. Clinical studies and open research are also being conducted on a regular basis to help ascertain the physical and neurological aspects of schizophrenia, and find new ways to deal with the disorder. Volunteers can help test new types of medication.
Charities that expand general mental health care for the disadvantaged in the United States are also incredibly important for helping fight against schizophrenia and a host of other mental illnesses. Due to the misconceptions around the disease and the very real difficulties that it presents, about six percent of schizophrenics are homeless – and about 25 percent of homeless people are estimated to suffer from a mental illness, versus the general population statistic of 18.2 percent.
It’s one thing to understand how schizophrenia works, what counts as schizophrenia, and the general treatment options that exist to combat the symptoms of the disease and help thousands lead relatively normal lives. It’s another to make these options available to everyone who needs them or educate the general population on the truths of schizophrenia. But, it’s on us to try anyways, and do our best to make a difference.