Unfortunately, many people know very little about schizophrenia and other forms of mental illness. Society has several misconceptions about psychiatric disorders in general, and schizophrenia in particular. The media often perpetuate myths about mental illness. When covering a story about a crime, reporters sometimes stress a history of mental illness in the alleged perpetrator even though schizophrenia patients are no more likely than people without schizophrenia to commit violent crimes. Some movies and TV programs misrepresent people with mental illness and make them appear weak, silly, or frightening. As a result, those at risk may be less likely to seek help for mental illness. The only way to eliminate the stigma of mental illness is through education. Everyone needs to learn more about different kinds of mental disease and their causes, effects, and treatments. With better understanding of mental illness, we can hope that these harmful and inaccurate stereotypes are eradicated.
NARSAD, the National Alliance for Research on Schizophrenia and Depression, is a nonprofit agency devoted to providing funding for research that helps us learn more about mental illness. In 2001, NARSAD surveyed mental health professionals in the United States and assembled a list of the most common myths about mental illness. Here are the top 10 myths about mental illness as listed by NARSAD.
Following each myth is a fact that explains why the myth is a misperception.
Top ten myths about mental illness
Myth #1: Psychiatric disorders are not true medical illnesses like heart disease and diabetes. People who have a mental illness are just “crazy.”
Fact: Brain disorders, like heart disease and diabetes, are legitimate medical illnesses. Research shows there are genetic and biological causes for psychiatric disorders, and they can be treated effectively.
Myth #2: People with a severe mental illness, such as schizophrenia, are usually dangerous and violent.
Fact: Statistics show that the incidence of violence in people who have a brain disorder is not much higher than it is in the general population. Those suffering from a psychosis such as schizophrenia are more often frightened, confused, and despairing than violent.
Myth #3: Mental illness is the result of bad parenting.
Fact: Most experts agree that a genetic susceptibility, combined with other risk factors, leads to a psychiatric disorder. In other words, mental illnesses have a physical cause.
Myth #4: Depression results from a personality weakness or character flaw, and people who are depressed could just snap out of it if they tried hard enough.
Fact: Depression has nothing to do with being lazy or weak. It results from changes in brain chemistry or brain function, and medication and/or psychotherapy often help people recover.
Myth #5: Schizophrenia means split personality, and there is no way to control it.
Fact: Schizophrenia is often confused with multiple personality disorder. Actually, schizophrenia is a brain disorder that robs people of their ability to think clearly and logically. The estimated 2.5 million Americans with schizophrenia have symptoms ranging from social withdrawal to hallucinations and delusions. Medication has helped many of these individuals to lead fulfilling, productive lives.
Myth #6: Depression is a normal part of the aging process.
Fact: It is not normal for older adults to be depressed.
Signs of depression in older people include a loss of interest in activities, sleep disturbances, and lethargy.
Depression in the elderly is often undiagnosed, and it is important for seniors and their family members to recognize the problem and seek professional help.
Myth #7: Depression and other illnesses, such as anxiety disorders, do not affect children or adolescents. Any problems they have are just a part of growing up.
Fact: Children and adolescents can develop severe mental illnesses. In the United States, one in 10 children and adolescents has a mental disorder severe enough to cause impairment. Only about 20 percent of these children receive needed treatment. Left untreated, these problems can get worse. Anyone talking about suicide should be taken very seriously.
Myth #8: If you have a mental illness, you can will it away. Being treated for a psychiatric disorder means an individual has in some way “failed” or is weak.
Fact: A serious mental illness cannot be willed away. Ignoring the problem does not make it go away either. It takes courage to seek professional help.
Myth #9: Addiction is a lifestyle choice and shows a lack of willpower. People with a substance abuse problem are morally weak or “bad.”
Fact: Addiction is a disease that generally results from changes in brain chemistry. It has nothing to do with being a “bad” person.
Myth #10: Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), formerly known as shock treatment, is painful and barbaric.
Fact: ECT has given a new lease on life to many people who suffer from severe and debilitating depression. It is used when other treatments such as psychotherapy or medication fail or cannot be used. Patients who receive ECT are asleep and under anesthesia, so they do not feel anything.
(Reprinted from http://www.narsad.org.)
What are the symptoms of schizophrenia?
A diagnosis of schizophrenia is made when a pattern of two or more of these symptoms is present most of the time for one month (or less time if treated successfully).
- Hallucinations -these are experiences in which any one or more of the person’s five senses “plays tricks” on him or her, giving misinformation. Most common hallucination: hearing voices that no one else hears.
- Delusions -these are false beliefs, firmly held by the ill person but which other people do not believe. Examples of delusions: someone ordinary convinced that he is a great singer or someone convinced that she is being tracked by others who intend to harm her.
- Disorganized speech -the ill person’s speech is hard to follow or the person can’t stay on topic when talking.
- Extremely confused, disorganized, or withdrawn behavior
- “Negative symptoms”
- -face shows no expression
- -when talking, the person does not give much information
- -the person has problems being motivated to do things
What about recovery?
Currently there is no cure for schizophrenia, but the majority (90%) of individuals with this disorder can expect to recover a level of functioning that allows a satisfactory life in their community. In 75% of cases, there will be occasional periods of illness with many symptoms of schizophrenia, followed by long periods during which there will be only a few symptoms of schizophrenia present. About 50% of people who receive the diagnosis of schizophrenia will experience some disability and need special support and consideration regarding employment and lifestyle maintenance.
Lifestyle changes needed to support recovery and wellness
1. Have regular appointments with your doctor and case manager. Work with a psychiatrist and case manager in whom you have confidence, to control the symptoms of your illness and related problems. You should have regular appointments, usually at least monthly, with the ability to make telephone calls to your doctor and case manager between appointments if you feel the need to talk to them about symptoms, side effects from your medication, or other concerns affecting you illness.
2. Put nothing into your body that would imbalance your brain chemistry. No alcohol. No street drugs. No marijuana. No diet pills. Switch to decaffeinated coffee and decaf soft drinks. Be sure to read labels to avoid caffeine. Eat very little chocolate.
3. Learn and practice good stress management techniques.
- Build “routines” into your daily life, including regular bedtimes, regular mealtimes, etc. Remain faithful to these routines once they are set (-especially don’t “blow” them during holidays or at other special occasions).
- Take “time out” periods to let yourself calm down and slow down when you feel you’ve gotten too much stimulation.
- Pace your life activities well-not “too fast/too much” but also not “too slow/ too boring”. Try for a pleasantly busy but unhurried life.
- Have a hobby.
- Make the effort to have friends and be a friend.
- Choose to focus on the positive instead of dwelling on the negative. Encourage yourself; don’t bring yourself down.
4. Daily do what’s necessary to be as well as you can be. Get 8 hours per night sleep. Eat right. Exercise (-brisk walking is excellent). Stay positive and hopeful. Have some time in each day during which you do something productive - chores, job, volunteering or attending a clubhouse.
5. Symptom monitor. Know the early warning signs of relapse. When symptoms increase, contact your doctor or case manager immediately. Nip relapse in the bud!
What is the most common reason for relapse that can be avoided?
Two common mistakes that lead to getting sick again are (1) to stop taking prescribed medication and (2) to use alcohol or street drugs.
Heather Barnett Veague, Ph.D.
Heather Barnett Veague attended the University of California, Los Angeles, and received her Ph.D. in psychology from Harvard University in 2004. She is the author of several journal articles investigating information processing and the self in borderline personality disorder. Currently, she is the Director of Clinical Research for the Laboratory of Adolescent Sciences at Vassar College. Dr. Veague lives in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, with her husband and children.
Compiled and edited by
Kay McCrary, Ed.D., Director, Patient & Family Education
G.Werber Bryan Psychiatric Hospital, Columbia, South Carolina 29203