Scrapping the schizophrenia stigma

The riddle: known by many but understood by few. The answer: schizophrenia. How can the common schizophrenia misconceptions be overcome?

Writer: Similoluwa Ayeni-Yegbe
Editor: Isabel Maas
Artist: Louisa Norton

Schizophrenia is a commonly misunderstood disorder that affects 20 million people worldwide. Although the cause of schizophrenia is unknown, evidence suggests that a person is more likely to develop schizophrenia due to a combination of environmental, genetic, physical and psychological factors. People with schizophrenia may experience delusions. For example, some strongly believe that a person on TV is talking to them personally; some experience hallucinations, which often includes hearing critical or abusive voices. Withdrawal from social contact is also common. 

There are many misconceptions associated with schizophrenia, some of which are due to the way schizophrenia sufferers are portrayed in the media. These myths have a negative impact on their relationships and jobs. Sadly, humans sometimes fear things that they don’t understand. As a result, some individuals with schizophrenia have experienced friends suddenly drawing away after they’ve been diagnosed. In a ‘Time to Change’ blog, Sarah, who has now recovered from schizophrenia, recalls: “I felt so crushed and deflated…when a lifetime friend judged me and broke ties with me because I’d been hospitalized with psychosis.” 

Unfortunately, the discrimination faced by people with schizophrenia can even lead to death. Those with schizophrenia have a 5.6% risk of suicide. Let’s consider some common misconceptions and address why they’re untrue.

“Schizophrenia results in a split personality.” 

Although the word schizophrenia is derived from the Greek words schizein (“splitting”) and phren (“mind”), individuals with schizophrenia don’t have a split personality. Schizophrenia may cause a person’s behaviour to become more unpredictable, but they don’t become a completely different person.  Schizophrenia is often confused with dissociative identity disorder, in which people feel the existence of other identities within themselves. 

“People with schizophrenia have sudden mood swings.”

Schizophrenia can be triggered by stressful situations, so may appear to develop suddenly, but the symptoms actually develop gradually in most people. However, initial symptoms may not appear to be schizophrenia-related, such as social isolation.

“People with schizophrenia are violent.” 

Films and programmes sometimes portray the ‘crazy serial killer’ as a character with schizophrenia. Unfortunately, media reports are also to blame, as when violent acts are committed by people with schizophrenia, their mental illness is often emphasised. As a result, many come to the false conclusion that schizophrenia leads to violent acts. However, this is far from the truth. In fact, a person with a mental health illness is less likely to carry out a violent act than to have one committed against them. 

What can be done to tackle the stigma? Although our society has made a lot of progress in overcoming the misconceptions around mental illness, more positive words and actions are needed to completely overcome the stigma. We should view mental illness with the same seriousness as a physical illness. Some people with mental illnesses don’t talk about their symptoms because of the discrimination they may face, refraining from getting treatment. Needless to say, this only worsens the situation. 

So, next time you hear someone making a rude remark about mental illness, don’t be afraid to readjust their thinking. Who knows who will overhear your conversation and appreciate your concern? Who knows if that one conversion will bring us a step closer to scrapping the schizophrenia stigma?

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