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Unwinding the Hazardous Stigma of Schizophrenia

Posted June 18, 2018

Tags: advocacyawareness

"The truth is the more we talk about it, the more people will realize that there’s nothing 'crazy' about having schizophrenia."


CONTENT WARNING: This article contains references to violence


Often associated with lunacy and violence, a destructive stigma and lack of understanding still heavily prevail for schizophrenia.


What is Schizophrenia?

Schizophrenia affects more than 21 million people in the world; only 50% of those people seek care for their condition.

The 5th edition of the Diagnostic Statistical Manual, or DSM-5, lists that two or more of these symptoms yield a diagnosis of schizophrenia: 

  • Delusions: A false belief firmly held despite evidence to the contrary including– delusions of persecution; delusions of reference; delusions of grandeur; and delusions of control
  • Hallucinations: The experience of sights, sounds, or other perceptions in the absence of external stimuli  
  • Disorganized speech or behavior: Speaking incoherently; losing track of thoughts; displays of emotions that are unsuited to the situation
  • Negative symptoms: Lack of motivation, movement, and speech; social isolation; cognitive impairment

In addition, the presence of two or more symptoms should prevail for at least six months; the individual’s overall functioning in society and attention to self-care has declined; schizoaffective, depression, bipolar disorders have been ruled out; and substance use/abuse has been ruled out.

Associate Dean and Professor at USC’s Gould Law school Elyn Saks writes about her experience with schizophrenia in her acclaimed book, The Center Cannot Hold, offering an inside look into the mind of a person with schizophrenia. She sums up the disorder in this passage: 

“Schizophrenia is a brain disease which entails a profound loss of connection to reality. It is often accompanied with delusions, which are fixed yet false beliefs–such as you have killed thousands of people–and hallucinations, which are false sensory perceptions such as you have just seen a man with a knife. Often speech and reason can become disorganized to the point of incoherence” (page 168).

While the hallucinations and delusions that people with schizophrenia experience can be of a violent nature, such as the delusion of having killed thousands of people, it is important to note that these hallucinations and delusions do not inherently make such individuals dangerous.


The Stigma

The media plays a major role in the violent perceptions of schizophrenia.

Movies like The Fisher King (1991) and Mr. Brooks (2007) portray characters who are serial killers with symptoms of schizophrenia.

In a time where mass shootings make the news headlines more often than not, schizophrenia is sometimes brought up in question to possibly rationalize why someone would kill so many people. Mental health should not be excluded from the conversation on gun violence, as studies show that more mental health treatment can decrease rates of violence. However, it is crucial to restrain from immediately making connections to schizophrenia, especially when that assumption is likely false.

According to a study that assessed people with schizophrenia around the world, 15.5% committed minor acts of violence (assault without injury and without the use of a lethal weapon) and only 3.1% committed major acts of violence (resulting in injury, threatening and/or using a lethal weapon, and sexual assault). In fact, people with schizophrenia are more likely to be victims of violence. 

The studies seem to speak for themselves: schizophrenia does not make an individual violent. This stigma is a major detriment to individuals with schizophrenia, as it affects their own journey with self-care, treatment, and self-image. Many people are afraid to seek treatment because they do not want to view themselves as a “mental patient.” 

The presence of schizophrenic symptoms may seem quite intense and difficult to manage in a society that does not quite understand them, but treatment is absolutely possible. Like many living with schizophrenia, author Elyn Saks found a self-care regimen that works for her, a supportive network of family and friends, and the ability to pursue her goals–as did Nobel Prize Mathematician John Nash.

The truth is the more we talk about it, the more people will realize that there’s nothing “crazy” about having schizophrenia.


(photo: "And after the bush, the trees caught fire." by Several seconds is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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