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7 Things You Should Know About Schizophrenia

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When news stories of the latest mass shooting sprawled across my social media feeds these past few years, I was met with an uncomfortable truth: people are afraid of individuals with schizophrenia. CNBC reports “a psychotic individual” as the second reason of a repeated characteristic of a person who is likely to commit mass murder, citing schizotypal personality disorder and schizophrenia as warnings.

Efforts to combat the perpetual myth that people of the schizophrenia spectrum are dangerous have been few but noteworthy. Dr. Elyn Saks of University of Southern California wrote an impressive memoir about her schizophrenia, “The Center Cannot Hold,” which raised awareness about the first-person experiences of the disorder. And in 2019 writer Esme Weijun Wang released her second book, “The Collected Schizophrenias,” which include detailed essays about her experience living with schizoaffective disorder. It went on to become a New York Times bestseller and was featured across many popular platforms.

As a person who also lives with schizoaffective disorder and who publicly shares her story on social media platforms and through speeches with the National Alliance on Mental Illness, I run into many of the same misconceptions. As a response, I would like to straighten a few things out about living with schizophrenia:

1. Schizophrenia is NOT “multiple personality disorder.”

Many people confuse the term, “multiple personality disorder” with schizophrenia when in fact, multiple personality disorder is not an official diagnosis. Usually what people are referencing is dissociative identity disorder, which, according to WebMD, is “a severe form of dissociation” that results in a person forming multiple selves and “personalities” thought to be caused by significant childhood trauma.

By contrast, schizophrenia is a disorder of the senses and thinking.

2. There are multiple types of schizophrenia, including schizoaffective and schizoid personality.

Schizophrenia is a blanket term for the spectrum of schizophrenic disorders, but it also is its own disorder by itself. On the spectrum are many diagnoses including:

Schizophrenia: National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) cites this as a disorder of a person’s thinking and senses where the individual has lost touch with reality. Symptoms are broken into positive and negative symptoms. Positive symptoms include experiences that are added on to a person’s daily living, like hallucinations and delusions. Negative symptoms are things like lack of affect and avolition (lack of motivation).

Schizoaffective disorder: This disorder has all of the positive symptoms of schizophrenia, but instead of a lack of affect, a person has so much affect that there is a bipolar diagnosis added to its definition. Affect symptoms include mania and depression, which can lead a person to be categorized with schizophrenia-bipolar I or II.

Schizoid Personality Disorder: This is a disorder where people shy away from other people or social interactions. Psychology Today explains that this disorder reveals an “indifference” to social interactions.

3. Schizophrenia is one of the leading mental illnesses associated with homelessness.

The National Alliance to End Homelessness cites that as much as 20 percent of the homeless population is estimated to have schizophrenia. People with schizophrenia are one of the most marginalized demographics in this country and worldwide. Having a disorder of one’s thinking and senses makes one prone to the challenge of living in a society structured like our western world’s — one full of capitalist principles such as your inherent economic value being measured by your ability to work. Many people with schizophrenia do not have the ability to work a “9 to 5” job every day, and many are without familial financial support. The result ends up being homelessness.

4. There is no universal preferred language for people with schizophrenia/schizophrenics.

Schizophrenic.NYC is an awareness organization based in New York City that makes clothes to start conversations about schizophrenia and mental illness. In an interview the founder said she felt comfortable calling herself “schizophrenic,” while the interviewer advocated for more person-first language as a “person with schizophrenia.” Identity-first or person-first, people with schizophrenia have a wide range for what is their preference.

5. People with schizophrenia do not universally carry out mass shootings.

Psychiatry Online featured an article by Drs. James L. Knoll and George D. Annas dispelling the myth that people with schizophrenia often carry out mass shootings. In fact, according to them, mass shootings conducted by people with mental illness make up less than one percent of all yearly homicides related to gun violence. Mentally ill individuals as a whole only contribute to three percent of the culture’s violent crimes in general.

6. There are few treatments for schizophrenia besides medications.

Practitioners can refer people with schizophrenia to cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) or talk therapy to manage symptoms, but there are no therapies specifically targeted at helping individuals cope with the hallucinations and delusions, aside from your standard emotional regulation strategies. Medications are the only known substance to make the symptoms go away, and they often come with drastic side effects like weight gain, tardive dyskinesia, muscle twitching and more.

7. You can still be schizophrenic and successful.

Dr. Elyn Saks writes about “successful and schizophrenic” personalities that we never hear about in the news and media. Of 20 research subjects, Dr. Saks was able to find that people living with schizophrenia can and are achieving advanced degrees, working full time jobs and leading productive lives in their communities. Traits of these success stories include figuring out ways to keep the symptoms at bay, sometimes by flicking voices off like a chip off their shoulder or questioning their hallucinations with skepticism. Regardless of the method, people with schizophrenia can still find ways to live productive and successful careers, lives and relationships.

Schizophrenia, like any diagnosis or illness, is as diverse as the individuals living with it. A person is responsible for getting treatment for their condition, but to be subjected to discrimination for being “schizophrenic” just adds to the daily struggles and hassles that come with this already harrowing disorder. In the future, these facts should be commonplace to lessen the burden of the stigma of living with schizophrenia.

Getty image by Giulio Fornasar

Originally published: April 15, 2020
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