Understanding Schizophrenia

“We all have an amazing ability to shape our own reality, regardless of the facts. We can live our entire lives in a bubble and be quite comfortable. And there can be other realities that we refuse to acknowledge, but are every bit as real as our own.” – Hidden Valley Road

Schizophrenia is a serious mental illness that affects how a person thinks, feels, and behaves. It is often diagnosed after an episode of psychosis (some loss of contact with reality). Other symptoms could be social withdrawal and cognitive difficulties. While the exact cause of schizophrenia is unknown; genetics, environment, brain chemistry, and drug use are possible causes. The general public seems to lean toward being fearful and avoidant of both the discussion of and people with schizophrenia. There is a reason for this fear.

The general public is fed negative and fear inducing images of schizophrenia through the media. Negative portrayals of schizophrenics include the dark characters, Norman Bates, in the movie Psycho and Nina Sayers in the movie Black Swan. Both of these characters are murderers. People with schizophrenia are actually 14 more times likely to be a victim of a crime than a perpetrator. So these portrayals are not only fictional but poor representations of the true lived experience of most schizophrenics.  Positive portrayals of schizophrenia do exist in film. These include the based on true story movies: Beautiful Mind and Brain on Fire. Beautiful Mind is about a highly intelligent schizophrenic. Brain on Fire is about a medically induced schizophrenic episode. Reality is less dramatic than any of these 4 mentioned movies and therefore less appealing to learn about. Outside of the entertainment industry there exists a professor in the school of law and author of multiple books, Elyn Saks. Elyn lives a successful life with schizophrenia. It’s totally possible to be successful and live a “normal life” with this health condition. With 1 in 300 people affected by schizophrenia, there are a lot of “normal looking” people walking around with schizophrenia.

I thought they were mostly homeless people that talked to themselves. I was very wrong

As a nurse in a mental health clinic, I can say that schizophrenics are represented in all walks of life; there is not a stereotypical persona that I would box them in. I have seen men and women, young adults and older adults, people with involved and supportive family members, people that struggle with their family, well dressed, not so well dressed, people that dress a bit more unusually, people that are pretty and well groomed, and people that are a bit disheveled. I can also say that I didn’t fear for my life with any of them. They have all been generally quite polite and respectful to me in the clinic setting. I honestly was previously afraid of schizophrenics a bit, trusting the stereotype that they were people to be feared and not trusted. I thought they were mostly homeless people that talked to themselves. I was very wrong and I am glad I have been taught the truth through my experience. I have come to care about them and see them as people, just like anyone else, each with their own battles to overcome. One of those battles for them just so happens to be schizophrenia.

In the past, schizophrenia was mainly untreated. A story was shared with me of a father that drowned his schizophrenic voices with alcohol. People didn’t know where to go or what to do so they did what they could do to function to the best of their ability. There also was great shame in the very idea of having a schizophrenic family member. Another person recently shared with me that they have a schizophrenic family member that lives independently. A lot has changed in the last decade in regards to talking about and understanding schizophrenia. The diagnosis is less taboo.

The right thing to do is to stretch our perception from fearing schizophrenia to having an understanding of it.

As we continue to decrease the stigma of simply talking about schizophrenia, more people may get the treatment they need and the opportunities they deserve for a more fulfilling life.  Daily pills or monthly injections can significantly improve the life of a schizophrenic, along with therapy.  Daily pills may be difficult for someone struggling with this illness, monthly injections given by a professional help with compliance. These injectable medications have been around since 1960 with variations and improvements added between 2003 and 2012.

What Are Some Things Can We Do to Understand and Improve the Lives of Those Living with Schizophrenia?

1.      You are reading this article. Thank you! That was a huge step in understanding.

2.      Don’t see them as their label. They may be schizophrenic, but they are also someone’s child, friend, father, or sister. They have a name. They may have a job. They have feelings, thoughts, and talents to share with the world.

3.      Speak up when someone is speaking negatively and/or fearfully of schizophrenia. Share something from this article or a positive personal experience with them.

4.      Watch your mouth. As schizophrenics look like everyone else, you may be talking to a fully functional schizophrenic about schizophrenia. They may be ashamed of their diagnosis and not want you to know. Choose words that do not shame the diagnosis.

5.      Consider watching Brain on Fire and Beautiful Mind. Consider reading Hidden Valley Road by Robert Kolker to see the progression of a family living with schizophrenia and the progression of schizophrenia treatment through recent history.

6.      If you think you may have or have schizophrenia, please do not self-treat. Please seek out professional medical care that can give you the quality of life that you deserve. You are worth it.

Living in our comfortable bubble of how we think things should be and how we think things are may be easy but it isn’t always right. The right thing to do is to stretch our perception from fearing schizophrenia to having an understanding of it. It’s ok to not understand it completely, just to acknowledge that there are people that live in different realities is a huge step.

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