Facts and fictions about schizophrenia

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By Pascale Leclair-Roberts

May 24th was National Schizophrenia and Psychosis Awareness Day (NSPAD). Raising awareness and understanding these conditions are important to reduce stigma and break down the barriers people living with schizophrenia experience every day. In Canada, about 1% of Canadians live with schizophrenia and around 3% of will experience at least one psychosis episode in their lifetime.

People living with schizophrenia experience higher rates of stigmatization, fueled by misconceptions and stereotypes associated with their mental illness. Stigma often leads to worse health outcomes, through social isolation and constant stress. People with schizophrenia have 2 to 3 times the rate of smoking than the general population, and up to 6 times the rate of heavy smoking. They are more likely to be obese, to develop diabetes, to suffer cardiovascular problems and impaired lung function.

Because of stigma, people with schizophrenia are less likely to talk about their condition. This is a concern, since later diagnoses result in worsening symptoms associated with the illness. Feelings of helplessness can lead a person living with schizophrenia to turn to self-medication using alcohol and drugs.

There are many ways to combat stigma and improve the health and well-being of people living with schizophrenia, which you can explore at http://www.schizophrenia.on.ca/Resources/Stigma.

An important way to reduce stigma is through increasing knowledge and understanding of the disease, and share the truths about the disease. Here are a few things you need to know and a few common myths we all need to stop believing.

What is Schizophrenia?

“Schizophrenia is a severe mental disorder, characterized by profound disruptions in thinking, affecting language, perception, and the sense of self. It often includes psychotic experiences, such as hearing voices or delusions. It can impair functioning through the loss of an acquired capability to earn a livelihood, or the disruption of studies.

Schizophrenia typically begins in late adolescence or early adulthood. Most cases of schizophrenia can be treated, and people affected by it can lead a productive life and be integrated in society.”
- http://www.schizophrenia.on.ca/Resources/About-Schizophrenia

What causes schizophrenia?

To date, researchers have not found the exact causes of the mental illness.

Language has a big impact on stigma

Words hurt.

The way we talk about mental illness contributes to negative social perceptions and stereotypes. It stigmatizes and socially isolates those living with mental disorders, and influences their health and well-being. Some negative terms that reinforce stereotypes and stigma are psychotic, psycho, schizo, crazy, nut house, loony bin, schizophrenic.

The term schizophrenic is often used inappropriately in everyday conversations when referring to a person who has the illness. Instead, the right terms to use are: a person with, or living with, schizophrenia.

5 myths about schizophrenia

  1. It’s genetic. If you have a relative with it, you or your children will likely develop it.

This is an exaggeration of the truth. Yes, genes do play a role in developing schizophrenia. Some research evidence has found that a family history of schizophrenia slightly increases the risk. However, this theory has failed to account for all cases of schizophrenia. And when it comes to genes, people who have the highest risk are those with an identical twin with schizophrenia. But again, not all identical twins in this situation share the gene associated with schizophrenia and also develop the mental illness throughout their life course. So while genetics may play a role, it does not explain the whole story.

  1. People with schizophrenia are violent.

This is a very popular myth about people living with schizophrenia. Research shows that people living with schizophrenia receiving treatment are no more violent than the rest of the population. This stereotype has been fueled over time by movies and sensationalized reportage of isolated events. 

  1. Schizophrenia is caused by bad parenting.

This myth stems from the 1950s. Some therapists working with families believed that schizophrenia was the result of bad parenting, usually due to the mother. However, this theory has long been disproved, even though the belief has stuck around. High-stress family environments can exacerbate an existing illness, but no, it will not cause schizophrenia.

  1. Schizophrenia means having split or multiple personalities

Even though translated from its Greek origin the word means “split mind”, schizophrenia is not characterized by multiple personalities or a state of thinking two opposite things at once. It is a condition characterized by disruptive patterns of thinking that can lead to psychotic experiences, such as hearing voices or delusions. Multiple personalities characterize a very different mental disorder that is not linked to schizophrenia.

  1. Treatment doesn’t work, even in early stages.

False. Treatment at an early stage can make a huge difference. It can minimize functional losses and prevent problematic or dangerous behaviours. Even in later stages of the illness, treatment can help an individual regain control of his or her life.

It is true that persons experiencing acute psychosis may not respond well to typical psychiatric treatment. However, research evidence suggests that cognitive-behavioural therapies and adapted interventions, along with supportive interpersonal therapy, can effectively treat patients and help them stay on track.

More myths about schizophrenia:

Myths, Half-truths, and Common Misconceptions about Schizophrenia and Severe and Persistent Mental Illness (SPMI)(PDF)

For more information about the disease and its impacts on health and well-being: