Schizophrenia is one of the most, if not the most, stigmatized mental illness experience.

Everyone has heard about it at least once, but who really knows what we are talking about?

The stigma around Schizophrenia

This experience and the people living it are very stigmatized all around the world. This can have a huge impact on the person’s life, from being socially excluded, to chained to trees or locked in cages like animals for years!

It is time to bring light to what really is schizophrenia and maybe even more to what it is not.

The particularity of this experience, as maybe with bipolar disorder, is that even in the medical world, professionals are very uneducated about it, leading them to being afraid and avoiding these patients. In turn, this keeps the stigma even more alive. It also leads to internalized patients going through traumatizing experiences. Often, they will be numbed with overmedication, treated roughly (to not say badly) and all hope for a better future will be reduced to nothing.

Also, schizophrenia has been used a lot in the media as an (reason) excuse to dangerous behaviors or as the reason for someone to become the “bad guy” in a TV show or movie. It has been portrayed over and over again as an illness leading to people having multiple personalities and there’s always one of them that is very dangerous. Or it has been used as the reason why someone attacked someone else or made a terrorist act.

Many beliefs about schizophrenia are considered as facts in nowadays societies and they are passed on to us by the people around us and the media. This leads to stigmatizing this experience and makes it even harder to understand it and increases the risk of negative consequences like shame, not asking for help and/or suicide.  

The first belief is that someone who lives with schizophrenia has multiple personalities, or in other words a split personality. This is called multiple personality disorder or dissociative identity disorder and it is a completely different experience. People living with Schizophrenia do not have different personalities, they experience what we call positive (e.g. hallucinations, delusions…) and negative symptoms (e.g. lack of motivation, isolation…).

Another common belief is that people living with schizophrenia will never be able to recover and to live a normal life. Someone with schizophrenia can live a life without symptoms or more exactly, with controlled symptoms. This means that their experience is under control and even If they might need medication for the rest of their life, this is not so different from hypothyroidism or diabetes for example. (see MISTAG interviews to see recovery experiences).

As said earlier, another misbelief is that people living with schizophrenia are dangerous. Now, to clarify this, only a minority of people living with Schizophrenia are dangerous, the same way that only a minority of men are violent. The opposite is actually more often the case: people living with Schizophrenia have are at a higher risk of being the victim of violence. You have more chances to be attacked by someone under the influence of alcohol or drugs than by someone going through a schizophrenic episode.

I also hear very often that the risk with Schizophrenia is that the people experiencing it are very unpredictable as they might enter in a crisis at any moment. This is also a misunderstanding of the experience, the normal development of a psychotic episode takes time (sometimes months) where the person first stops taking care of themselves, stops their social activities, isolate themselves (i.e. apparition of the negative symptoms) and then a stressor like a difficult life event will be the trigger to the positive symptoms.

The last fact that is actually a myth is that people with Schizophrenia should stay for a really long time in psychiatric care if they want to have a chance to come back to normal. Actually, it has been proven that long term hospitalization is wrong for people going through a mental illness experience. Nowadays more and more studies show that home care and peersupport are more adapted than hospitalization and prevent the person from losing their job, friends etc.

So, what is schizophrenia?

The American Psychiatric Association (APA) states that “schizophrenia is a chronic brain disorder” that affects how a person perceives reality.

Since people with Schizophrenia have a distorted vision of reality, they often think, speak and behave differently from people living without Schizophrenia.

Its symptoms are divided into four different categories:

  • Positive (psychotic) symptoms such as hallucinations and delusions. While people experiencing hallucinations can hear voices, see or feel things that other people don’t, patients struggling with delusions have false beliefs despite the evidence of facts.
  • Negative symptoms. People with negative symptoms have difficulties expressing emotions and participating in social life. Individuals experiencing negative symptoms are sometimes misdiagnosed with clinical depression.
  • Disorganization symptoms. Patients exhibiting disorganization symptoms move in an uncontrolled manner and often have hard times formulating logical speeches.
  • Impaired cognition such as concentration and memory problems.

Even though the duration and severity of schizophrenic episodes vary from person to person, the likelihood for patients living with schizophrenia to experience serious psychotic symptoms is lower with the passing of time.

The causes of schizophrenia

Schizophrenia may result from multiple factors. Some of them are:

  • Genetic: if one family member suffered (/ is suffering) from schizophrenia, other members of the same family have a higher likelihood of struggling with it.
  • Surrounding, living environment: such as exposure to viruses and malnutrition before birth.
  • Brain malfunction: in particular, neurotransmitters issues.
  • Substance abuse: teenagers struggling with drug abuse are more likely than their peers to suffer from schizophrenia in their lifetime.

People with schizophrenia have greater risk to also experience other mental illnesses such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and drug or alcohol abuse.

Schizophrenia’s statistics

  • 1% of the global population struggles with schizophrenia.
  • Worldwide over 20 million people have schizophrenia.
  • In EU around 5 million people suffer from schizophrenia.
  • Young people between 18 and 28 years old have a higher likelihood of suffering from schizophrenia.
  • 40% of men suffering from schizophrenia show the early symptoms before they turn 20.
  • 50% of patients with schizophrenia exhibit comorbidity with depression.
  • Over 5% of patients with schizophrenia commit suicide.